August 27, 2010

Rolling the Dice in Somalia

One decision to escalate Somalia’s war is somewhat understandable given the heat of the moment, and not just because of the politicking and military expansionism involved. Somalia’s rising temperature has produced a flammable conflict with unpredictable effects on the region, and the African Union’s (AU) hold on Mogadishu’s vital points was unsustainable when the bombs went off in a Kampala restaurant and rugby club. 6,000 AU troops stood no chance of defeating roughly 5,000 well-armed al-Shabab fighters and 600 al-Qaeda operatives in the capital, let alone the country.

They needed to be withdrawn or reinforced.

al-Shabab and al-Qaeda temporarily rescued Uganda and Burundi, AMISOM’s main contributors, by offering the AU justification to deploy 4,000 additional troops. But insurgent bait is normally poisonous. Drawn into a fire still beyond control, the AU force will ultimately stalemate and sink without additional troop deployments. Both al-Shabab and, ironically, America seek this reaction, leading to the point of Tuesday’s attack on the Muna Hotel in Mogadishu. An emotional, manipulated decision at the AU’s July summit in Uganda can be viewed as an emergency response to the Transitional Federal Government’s (TFG) collapse.

But while action needed to be taken, beating the war drums provokes events like Muna’s six dead parliament members. The West and the AU’s second reaction cannot mimic their first.

Unfortunately Somalia’s cycle is locked in escalation and hypocrisy. Washington incites al-Shabab and al-Qaeda to legitimatize its own military actions, such as US Special Forces and naval control of the Gulf of Aden, while providing fodder for the Western media. Stability won’t be delivered under this plan. US President Barack Obama, having condemned al-Shabab as racist after the Kampala bombings, deployed Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan after Muna to stress the evil of Ramadan violence. Yet Obama himself attracted criticism during last year’s Ramadan after a series of drone strikes in Pakistan.

Given Somalia’s continual downtrend, the Western-funded strategy pursued through the TFG and AMISOM warrants thorough examination before deploying 15,000 troops, the 20,000 demanded by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, or the 40,000 estimated by Ugandan General Nathan Mugisha, AMISOM’s lead commander. Kampala generated a key reaction that Muna has yet to. Opponents within the TFG government, doubting its capacity, objected to more troops during the AU summit, but most officials portrayed a unified front.

Muna’s aftermath is yielding the reverse, a flood of leaks by named and anonymous officials lamenting the TFG’s dire conditions, how none of Mogadishu is secure, that half of parliament has fled the country fearing an al-Shabab offensive.

Governance is impossible under such conditions, and military progress will be negated so long as the TFG remains inefficient. In addition to gaining its own people’s confidence, a trustworthy political mechanism to receive and distribute international funds is mandatory for the AU’s military expansion. Various reports list different figures, but roughly $200 million in Western aid has been earmarked for the TFG and AMISOM - and less than a third delivered. 2010 aid hovers in single digits. Without faith in the TFG, financial support for AMISOM won’t meet the demand.

And new confusion emanates from the TFG’s relationship with Sunni militia Ahlu Sunna. The two groups recently met with UN officials in Nairobi to resolve their power-sharing dispute and focus their energy towards al-Shabab, but Ahlu Sunna officials inside Somalia later denied the legitimacy of those in Kenya. Then, after the Muna attack, a spokesman for Ahlu Sunna in Nairobi stated, “We know that 50 percent of the government are Wahabbists. So we refuse to mix our forces with their forces because we can’t compromise our people.”

“These Wahabbists are the same people who are providing security for the members of parliament,” Mahamud Abdi Elmi explained, “so that is the reason for these attacks. We support the government, because we don’t want anarchy. But this is why we can’t mix our people with theirs. We know who they are.”

Escalating a counterinsurgency without a viable political solution frequently makes a bad situation worse. By increasing AU forces and expanding military operations without political direction, more suffering will isolate the AU from the local support necessary to operate. al-Qaeda will proliferate. And if Somalia’s standard of living fails to improve or deteriorates further, the latest rage in the US intelligence community will persist: US-Somali citizens donating, consciously or not, to al-Shabab. Brennan told reporters after Muna, “we're partnering with the countries in the area to ensure that al-Shabab is not able to carry out attacks in the region.”

"Partnering with countries in the area” to combat al-Shabab has fanned the war; counter-terrorism by itself is counterproductive. Only when a workable political framework has been laid on the ground should more forces deploy to complete the counterinsurgency, with the secondary objective of bringing resolution to Somalia’s internally displaced (IDP) and diaspora. Until the many kinks in the TFG, Ahlu Sunna, and the future status of Somaliland and Puntland are ironed out to a manageable degree, an AU military buildup will generate more chaos than stability.

This isn’t to say AMISOM lacks all non-military elements of a counterinsurgency; 2010 has seen a relative uptick in UN, AU, and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) coordination. New conferences are scheduled later in the year. But as past efforts were so underwhelming to begin with, these organizations still face mammoth leaps before committing the military forces necessary to achieve a decisive outcome in Somalia.

Some believe the AU should force Somali politicians to step up their performance by threatening withdrawal. This theory is consistent with general military strategy and strains of US military doctrine, specifically the Marines, and is currently debated in Afghanistan. E.J. Hogendoorn, head of the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group, argues that with the AU propping up the TFG, “The reality is that the TFG is not faced with an existential threat, and that is the dilemma. There is no incentive for the TFG to change.”

But while hand-outs do condition a local population to seek help from others rather than themselves, and should thus be avoided if possible, Somalia’s health is too fragile to issue an ultimatum. The threat would either go unfulfilled, weakening the West and the AU’s credibility, or potentially result in the TFG’s collapse.

Another strategy favors total disengagement, speculating that al-Shabab would cannibalize Hizbul Islam and ultimately fracture, but ceding the country to al-Shabab presents an extreme risk. A power struggle between the nationally-minded group and al-Qaeda's transnational ideology, while possible, isn’t certain. Enough sub-clans could split, rather than band together, to keep al-Shabab in a position of power. Ahlu Sunna could also resort to overt Ethiopian assistance, opening a new channel of foreign interference as another closes.

The most practical strategy isn’t to withdraw completely, but attempt to gain sovereignty of Mogadishu and drive al-Shabab into the countryside. This option necessitates the TFG’s evolution into a new political body, including the potential drafting of a new constitution. Elections are impossible given the current security environment so a national initiative and dialogue should be arranged in its place. Those with aptitude and integrity must be discovered and promoted. If the TFG can be reassembled into a stronger formation, energy should then transfer to securing Mogadishu’s perimeter and expanding UN operations.

In a rare piece of good news, South Africa continues to hammer home its point that Somalia requires full-spectrum counterinsurgency. Though its cabinet postponed a debate on whether to send troops, Deputy President Kgkalema Motlanthe recently stated that no final decision has been made: "One of the most important aspects as acknowledged by the African leaders at the (recent AU) Kampala Summit is that a military intervention alone would not resolve the Somalia conflict."

But Motlanthe added that the strategy to implement this realization has yet to be forged and, “thus it is crucial that a search for a comprehensive all-inclusive solution be stepped up.”

Perhaps South Africa should assume a public leadership role given its rationality, not just operate as a power behind the scenes. The AU needs South Africa’s reinforcement as 10,000 soldiers are likely insufficient to seize control of Mogadishu. 15,000 offer a realistic shot but only after a political framework is established, otherwise the mission may be doomed before it starts. Counterinsurgency truly launches once the AU expands out of Mogadishu and into the people, into al-Shabab’s territory - and al-Qaeda’s IED maze.

Conversely, while ultimatums should be avoided, failure to establish security and governance in Mogadishu deems a nation-wide campaign impossible. America must reconsider its escalating militarism as the remedy to al-Qaeda’s spread on multiple continents, and the AU should withdraw rather than stay mired in quagmire.

AMISOM would be over by default.

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