America’s Approach To Somalia Has Failed. It Now Has Two Options

From World Politics Review

Steven Metz Friday, Sept. 2, 2016

One of the most momentous decisions the United States made after 9/11 was to go on the offensive against violent extremists, seeking to cut them off at their source. This was to be done by helping governments in the Islamic world provide prosperity, security, justice and a sense of national identity.

While sound in theory, this forced the U.S. to work with deeply flawed partners and repeatedly crashed against three problems. First, extremists, appropriating or misappropriating religious themes and local grievances, are often deeply ingrained in the societies where they operate, whether by ethnicity, clan, tribe or religion. Second, political elites and security forces in the troubled nations that produce violent extremists are hindered by parochialism and corruption despite exhortations from their American advisers. And third, neighboring states with their own security concerns often complicate things by intervening or providing sanctuary for extremists.

For Americans versed in global affairs, the depiction of these problems immediately brings to mind Afghanistan. Problems are indeed stark there, but they also occur in other places where extremism grows. Nowhere better illustrates this than Somalia, where the U.S. and its partners are struggling to craft a viable course to sustainable security.

The U.S. first became involved in Somalia during the Cold War, to counter Soviet influence in neighboring Ethiopia. Then in 1991, the Somali national government collapsed, setting off militia warfare and a massive humanitarian crisis. The U.S. joined an international relief mission in 1993 but eventually slid from from humanitarianism to peace enforcement with disastrous results. Following the death of 19 U.S. servicemen in what became known as the Battle of Mogadishu, President Bill Clinton withdrew American military forces. With international peacekeepers gone, Somalia devolved into a nation without a state ruled by competing and often warring militias.

Years of effort by the United Nations, the African Union and an international support group have helped Somalia create a fragile national government and security force. But this remains precarious as most economic, political and military power remains with local leaders and forces rather than national ones. To make things even worse, militant salafi jihadism took root during Somalia’s decades of fragmentation and became particularly violent after a group called Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahedeen, or simply al-Shabab, split off from an organization known as the Islamic Courts Union.

In 2012, al-Shabab pledged allegiance to al-Qaida and began blending Somalia’s complex internal power struggles with transnational Islamic extremism. Foreign fighters joined local militants and took on leadership positions as al-Shabab orchestrated terrorist attacks in neighboring states like Uganda and Kenya to punish them for participating in the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM. If this wasn’t enough, the so-called Islamic State has now established a presence in Somalia.

Washington and its international partners have not found a way to deal with al-Shabab’s deep roots in Somali society.

During the past few years, forces from AMISOM drove al-Shabab out of Mogadishu and other major cities, but the militants still control pockets of the countryside and launch terrorist attacks on AMISOM supply lines and other soft targets, such as hotels and restaurants used by foreigners and officials of the Somali national government. Earlier this week, al-Shabab set off a massive car bomb near the presidential palace in Mogadishu, killing at least 10 people.

While AMISOM has led the fight against al-Shabab, the U.S. and nations from Europe and the Persian Gulf have provided important assistance to the Somali national government and security forces in the hope that they will become effective enough that most foreign troops can withdraw. But there’s the rub. Washington and its international partners have not found a way to deal with al-Shabab’s deep roots in Somali society; its appeal to angry young men; the ineffectiveness, corruption and competing loyalties of the Somali political elite and security forces; and concerns from neighboring states about extremism growing from the inability of the Somali government and security forces to control all of their territory. At this point, the strategy seems to be to ignore these problems and press onward with creating national political and security structures that lack unity and coherence and have a slim chance of survival.

Today there are few signs that what Americans consider the political norm—a central government committed to the national interest and a national military that reflects and represents the entire nation—will take root in Somalia. Despite massive amounts of money from foreign donors, the Somali National Army may not be able to keep al-Shabab at bay, much less defeat it, as AMISOM disengages. Local, clan-based elites and militias remain more important than the national government and security forces. But the U.S. simply does not have strategic concepts to handle dispersed, localized power structures.

This has long been a recurring problem when political powers based on centralized authority become involved in tribe- or clan-based cultures where power and authority are decentralized. Outside powers that succeed find local allies, rather than trying to create a national power structure. Yet in Somalia, as in Afghanistan, the U.S. has not yet reached this point and sticks doggedly to the idea that with its allies, it can help create an effective centralized system.

Eventually realism must set in. For the U.S. there are only two possible futures in Somalia: Washington and its partners can exercise influence through clan-based power structures, recognizing that while this may prevent al-Shabab from outright victory, it is likely to tie America to some unsavory Somali characters and actions. Or the U.S. can simply disengage altogether, knowing that Somalia may once again face large-scale internal war and humanitarian disaster. Neither option is desirable, but all indications are that they are the only viable ones.

Steven Metz is the author of “Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.” His weekly WPR column, Strategic Horizons, appears every Friday. You can follow him on Twitter@steven_metz.

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