Could Less Be More in Somalia?

By Joe Attwood

The ongoing conflict in Somalia has largely been ignored by the Western world. Since the 1991 overthrow of the oppressive regime of President Siad Barre, intense fighting between Somali warlords and their respective clans has left the country in a state of almost constant war. Al-Shabaab, whilst the largest and most active, is by no means the only Islamic extremist group fighting against the forces of the AU. Although the UN is unwilling to commit troops or materiel in support of the AU on the ground, the Western world and the US in particular remain concerned by the recent and substantial gains made by al-Shabaab and its affiliated organisations.Absent a centralised form of government for twenty years, the country is ensnared in a cycle of unrelenting violence that has accounted for the deaths of up to a million Somalis, with a further quarter of a million having been displaced as a direct result of the violence.

Today, there is no end to the conflict in sight. A military detachment of the African Union (AU) supports Somalia’s weak, fledgling government, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), as it strives to restore peace to the country and its people. Today, rather than fighting to quell disputes between rambunctious warlords, the AU forces are struggling to stem the tide of a growing Islamic extremist insurgency spearheaded by a group named Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (al-Shabaab).

The UN has made meagre efforts to tackle the crisis in Somalia. The TFG is funded by the US in the hope that it will form a strong, centralised government in Somalia. The issues of Islamic extremism and Somali piracy sit at the root of the Western desire to restore some semblance of secure statehood to the Horn of Africa.

But what effect has Western involvement had on the extremist insurgency? Has US and UN involvement contributed in any way to Somalia’s struggle to end the conflict that has prohibited the development of the country for two decades? What should the Western world do to save Somalia?

Somalia since 1991

Somalia suffered under the yoke of colonialism with the establishment of British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland by the respective European Empires in the 19th century. After independence was granted to Somalia in the 1960s, power was seized in a coup led by Marxist Siad Barre in 1979. President Barre governed with an iron fist, combining a mixture of the communist theories of Lenin, Marx and Mao with the teachings of the Koran, in an attempt to bludgeon Somali clans into unity and obedience.

His reign ended in 1991 in a coup led by warlord Mohammed Aidid. In post-Barre Somalia, the clans were unable to agree on a system of government and the country descended into civil war.

In 2004, in a landmark development for Somalia, the TFG was born out of negotiations between the six primary Somali clans. The TFG has been recognised as the official government of Somalia by the UN. Comprised of a President, a Prime Minister and a Parliament, the TFG first convened in an abandoned grain warehouse near the city of Baidoa in 2006.

Accompanying the rise of the TFG, an umbrella organisation named the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) began to gain in popularity. The UIC achieved support when it brought relative stability to areas of Somalia it controlled for the first time since before the overthrow of President Barre. The UIC’s increasing contact with Ethiopian forces that were training an army for the TFG in Western Somalia, resulted eventually in violent encounters between the parties. Somalia’s larger neighbour eventually undertook an invasion to free the Somali people of what it perceived as the threat of the UIC.

The Ethiopian invasion ensured that the TFG became the dominant power in Somalia by 2007. When underequipped AU troops replaced the Ethiopians, the UIC made significant comebacks. Today, the AU troops remain in the capital city Mogadishu, in support of the TFG, which controls and defends only a few streets of the city against an extremist offshoot of the UIC: al-Shabaab.

What threat does al-Shabaab pose to the West?

Al-Shabaab appears on the extreme periphery of the radar of the UN. Indeed, it only occupies this marginal position by dint of its self-declared, yet questionable, links to al-Qaeda.

The group’s purported ties to al-Qaeda are puzzling. In the 1990s, al-Qaeda did not use Somalia as a base of operations; no ethnic Somali appears in the senior chain of command of al-Qaeda, whilst no Somali has been involved in a terrorist attack or plot against the Western world outside of their country. Al-Shabaab engaged in suicide terrorism targeted at the Western presence and its allies in Somalia long before a relationship between it and al-Qaeda was suspected. The links between the two organisations remain suspect.

The prevailing fear within the UN is of al-Shabaab gaining control of Somalia. UN efforts to support the AU against al-Shabaab have been lacklustre to say the least. Efforts, such as they are, have been sustained because it is assumed that if the AU fails, the TFG will succumb to the pressure of al-Shabaab and an Islamic extremist bastion will be established in the Horn of Africa. It would be intolerably close to the Saudi Peninsula, an area of significant oil interest for the West.

However, this scenario is not the assured outcome of the defeat of the AU. The fact that bin Laden bypassed Somalia when he moved to Afghanistan from Sudan in the 1990s strongly suggests that the country was not fit for operations, or that the group had no links within it, or both. Evidence suggests that al-Shabaab’s claims to have links to al-Qaeda might simply be rhetorical propaganda designed to strengthen their position in the eyes of those it fights by associating itself with the infamous terrorist network.

Were al-Shabaab to achieve victory, many argue that its threat is not as great as most believe. Bronwyn Bruton of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the Western fear of al-Shabaab taking power in Somalia is unfounded, since the group lacks the organisational stability or popular support necessary to run a country effectively. Al-Shabaab continues to exist largely because it feeds off the conflict with the African Union. If that is taken away, the primary reason for its existence disappears. Paradoxically, many suspect that fighting to defeat al-Shabaab is the very thing that is keeping them alive.

What should the Western world do to save Somalia?

Adopting a position that is antithetical to the Western belief that the proliferation of democracy is the best antidote to Islamic extremism, Bruton argues that the best thing the UN and the AU can do to save Somalia is to withdraw. Bruton advocates a policy of "constructive disengagement", which calls for the discontinuation of support for the TFG and a greater focus on humanitarian aid and development in the country. The policy is essentially predicated on the idea that less involvement would actually do more to help Somalia.  

But neither the UN nor the US has devoted funds to the AU’s efforts on a scale that would enable them to say they have tried everything to help Somalia. US aid in the fight against al-Shabaab has never exceeded the paltry sum of US$5 million. Yet the idea that all avenues have been exhausted is the premise on which Bruton’s assessment is based. Former Somali Prime Minister Omar Sharmarke argued that "constructive disengagement" was simply an attempt by Washington to dodge commitment to cleaning up the mess in Somalia it had a large hand in creating.

The proposed policy is based on the erroneous belief that Somalia’s problems can be solved in Somalia without external help. AU troops agree that al-Shabaab can be defeated easily. They have said that all they require is the injection of military aid from the West.

The fact that AU soldiers and Somali politicians alike have said they can win the war if they have the military support of the West is precisely the reason it should be given. They are best placed to understand the situation on the ground, and their arguments shouldn’t be discounted so swiftly.

Many believe that a costly programme of nation-building would necessarily have to follow a military commitment. But this is not the case. Relations between Somalia’s clans are more disposed now to agreement on how a government for the country should look than ever before. The six largest Somali clans have mostly been able to reconcile their differences in pursuit of a common goal: the defeat of the Islamic extremists. Relative agreement on the need to win Somalia back from the grasp of extremism has fostered an unprecedented unity between the clans that could enable them to agree on implementing a stable system of government in the post-war environment. Western military aid is needed to bring about that environment, but the groundwork for a post-war government is already in place.

If the West can help the beleaguered AU troops, by an injection of military aid, to defeat al-Shabaab and its associated groups, one of the key obstacles to Somalia’s development will have been removed. The country could be restored to its pre-2006 state, a time before the rise of the UIC and extremism, before the war with Ethiopia, when it appeared to be moving steadily towards peace.

It is time that the UN confronts the pressing question that should be answered in the case of every foreign intervention: what is the best course of action we can and should take for the country and for its people? It seems that the policy of "constructive disengagement", coupled with the international community’s general attitude of disinterestedness towards Somalia’s war is a product of a desperate urge not to become involved in the rescue of a country that desperately needs saving. The memory of Iraq and Afghanistan makes a committed intervention seem unattractive. It is not a result of a sudden appreciation of what is best for Somalia.

The soldiers and politicians on the ground in Somalia are telling the UN what is best for the country. So far, and predictably, it has refused to listen.


Joe Attwood is a student at King's College London, interested in international security, defence and politics issues, particularly focused on US foreign and domestic policy. This article was originally published by Defence Viewpoints


18 July 2011