For so long Somalia has remained in the shadows of the US media, kept on life support by the international press but even then swept away by a turbulent world. Reporting in Somalia is roughly as hard as reporting on it. Disaster sells but people like answers, not problems.
Somalia won’t stay worlds away forever though.
These days have a particular now-or-never feeling. With al-Shabab, the main insurgency, in firm control of the southern region and gaining ground in Mogadishu, a counteroffensive by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) flopped at the worst possible time. The TFG, caught in an endless loop of infighting, has failed to pay its soldiers for months causing some to storm the parliament building and others to defect to al-Shabab. EU training programs outside the country aren’t readily available for combat.
With its back to the wall the TFG had no choice except to activate the Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, al-Shabab’s enemy who controls the northern territory. Five minister positions were offered to Ahlu Sunna in March in exchange for their relatively advanced military support, a creation of Ethiopian and US backing. Ahlu Sunna managed to knock al-Shabab off balance in coordinated strikes in Mogadishu and the south.
Villa Somalia, the presidential palace, was safe for now.
Yet Ahlu Sunna’s official entry into the war triggered a new phase in al-Shabab’s strategy. It swiftly moved on the central region of the state, seizing numerous towns held by its lesser rival Hizbul-Islam along with the key city of Beledweyne, which borders Ethiopia. Some of Hizbul-Islam’s units were assimilated and with leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys holed up in Mogadishu under TFG protection, Hizbul-Islam stood a better chance of joining than beating al-Shabab.
Apparently Aweys has realized this much and emerged from hiding to discuss a new alliance with Abdi Mohamud Godane, code-name Abu-Zubeyr, chief of al-Shabab. Sources say al-Qaeda operatives attended.
Even if Hizbul-Islam stubbornly fights to maintain independence, the reality remains that al-Shabab is steadily adding Somalia’s central region to its southern stronghold. This strategy’s primary objective is a pincer attack on Ahlu Sunna’s northern cities, Dhuusamarreeb and Abudwak, just as soon as al-Shabab captures Mogadishu. Preliminary attacks on Dhuusamarreeb have already begun.
But the real tipping point came less than two weeks ago and only relates indirectly to al-Shabab. Doubts had dogged Ahlu Sunna’s merger with the TFG since March, a marriage by necessity that found each side inwardly distrustful of the other. Finally Abu Yusuf Al-Qadi, the spiritual chief of Ahlu Sunna, declared its agreement with the TFG “collapsed.”
The TFG attempted to spin the issue. Dr. Khalid Omar Ali, state minister of the Prime Minister’s office, claimed a reshuffling of the cabinet fulfilled the agreement with Ahlu Sunna. This prompted Al-Qadi to reiterate days ago, "We hear people have checkpoints in some of the neighborhoods of Mogadishu. We hear people claiming Ahlu Sunna got posts. This is impossible. So we like to clear that for the Somali people.”
He says the posts went to warlords who bought their way into the government.
Now that relations between all parties have broken down, Somalia currently embodies a state of equilibrial free-for-all between al-Shabab, Ahlu Sunna, the TFG, and external forces. While TFG officials claim to have retaken neighborhoods in Mogadishu, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) was worried enough to deploy 2,000 emergency Ugandan troops to the capital.
The escalation has met protests from both al-Shabab, who vowed retaliation against Ugandan diplomats, and elements inside the TFG.
The result is that Somalia has never posed a greater threat to the West. This is no fear-mongering, but the reality of al-Qaeda’s strategic and economic warfare. With al-Qaeda operating temporary camps across al-Shabab territory and more foreign fighters being diverted to Somalia, including Afghans and Pakistanis, it seems only a matter of time before they attempt to strike a Western target.
al-Qaeda may be “on the run,” but it’s also outmaneuvering Washington. Its plan all along was to shift from failed state to failed state, ditching Afghanistan and working into the Arabian peninsula and Africa, where America has a much weaker political and military presence. The point of this fear is to drive a responsible preemptive solution instead of waiting to react militarily.
The West may not believe it has the time and resources for Somalia, but the failed state is at least on par with Iraq or Afghanistan and possibly exceeds them. Identical amounts of time, energy, and resources are necessary. Yet Somalia is still treated half-way, or not even that, thus the West will only have itself to blame if it fails to act appropriately. Though it has seen many during its history, Somalia once again finds itself at the crossroads.
The countdown for a solution is running out.
What’s needed to avert a military catastrophe is a grand political solution - an international Task Force for Somalia. Not only does this appear to be the most realistic solution to the conflict (despite its apparent idealism), nearly every actor is calling for international intervention. Last week President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed took to the front lines armed with an AK-47 to rally the nation.
He told Reuters after returning to the capital, "Things have gone beyond a level we can tolerate so there is an urgent need for international or regional help. My government can do little to forge its institutional duties because of constant attacks.”
The same demand is coming out of Ahlu Sunna, now isolated in its own dangerous position. Abu Qadi, after denouncing the TFG, added, "We are requesting from the international community to know and see that the government had violated the deal signed.” He wants international assistance too.
As do Uganda, who reluctantly deployed its forces without an exit strategy, and Kenya.
Abukar Arman, Somalia’s special envoy to America, claims help is around the corner: “Unlike the failed policy of the previous administration that was entirely based on counter-terrorism and military power, the soon to be announced policy of the current administration is expected to rely on soft power and building relationships.”
However Kenya’s Foreign Minister, Moses M. Wetangula, argues, "The levels of engagement of the United States, the levels of commitment, have been below our expectations. America, remember, enjoys the status currently of the only superpower, expected to have the capacity to do some of the things countries with limited capacity like ourselves cannot do, including enforcing Security Council resolutions.”
Now add in General David Petraeus’s Special Forces directive that authorized expanded operations in Somalia, plus the SEAL raid on al-Qaeda commander Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an event which solidified al-Qaeda and al-Shabab’s alliance. Despite a change in rhetoric, it seems that America’s response remains military-centric.
Wetangula illuminates what a potential Task Force may look like: several US officials to act in the UN, EU officials to oversee regional initiatives, a heavy African component composed of high-level officials from all of Somalia’s neighbors, and representation from Somaliland and Puntiland to exercise regional authority with TFG. A dozen or so members could compose the team, with America operating from the back and Africans up front.
The first task would be to restore the TFG to working order, either by reforming it or disbanding and replacing it with a more solid structure. This would involve a deep level of participation from Somalia’s local power-brokers, which must play an active role in the Task Force. A bottom-up strategy will never succeed without assistance from the top, making it critical to promote diplomats who understand they serve the bottom.
Among many secondary issues to address is a full investigation into the TFG’s use - and America’s arming - of child soldiers, for obvious reasons, along with an investigation into missing journalists who reported on the story. And at the top of the list: a regional construct for Somalia, Somaliland, and Puntland, a peace treaty with Ethiopia, piracy (which will never be solved at sea), and proxy negotiations with militant groups.
The ultimate purpose of a Task Force, as politics won’t completely resolve the conflict, is devising an all-encompassing political framework to run potential AU/EU/US military operations through, or a UN peacekeeping mission. This isn’t advocation of those operations, only the acceptance of their inevitability. The Task Force must minimize the need for military action and ensuing negative reaction through the appropriate political and cultural knowledge.
And it must act before al-Qaeda strikes a Western target out of Somalia. Before Ethiopian or US brigades are forced to storm Mogadishu and other al-Shabab positions. Before the war is lost for good.
[Update: Or maybe it's already too late. The Ugandan bombing bears all the marks of al-Qaeda. We would have warned the government of an imminent attack if we could. This bomb carries the explicit message that it takes days, not weeks, to strike the capital of Kampala. The explosives were likely smuggled in from Kenya.
Though tragic, the US media through no coincidence leaves out the most important detail of the story in its reporting. Uganda doesn’t just contribute troops to the African Union mission in Somalia, it recently deployed an emergency force of 2,000 to Mogadishu. Parts of Somalia’s government, already in danger of collapsing, have objected; so has the Ugandan press, an important factor if the government lacks public support. Nor do many Somalis welcome the addition of more foreign troops. al-Shabab's strict rule aside, they know foreign troops will only bring more chaos.
A blackout has eliminated this piece of reality.
Will the Kampala bombing be used as a catalyst for political or military action? Mike Hammer, spokesman for President Barack Obama's National Security Council already pledged that Washington is "ready to provide any assistance requested by the Ugandan government." Now reports indicate at least one US citizen has been killed.
This is a major decision of US foreign policy, one hard to believe that will be made wisely.]