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Sweeping Up in Somalia
By J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
Published 04 Jan 07
The reports continue to stream in of the hasty retreat of the militants of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in the face of an unexpectedly heavy offensive by Ethiopian air and land forces acting at the nominal behest of Somalia's besieged Transitional Federal Government (TFG), and with the tacit endorsement of the United States.
At the time of this writing, the Islamists had abandoned the sometime capital of Mogadishu without much of a fight and, after a brief stop at their last stronghold, the port of Kismayo some 500 kilometers to the south, have gone to earth in the dense forests between that city and the Kenyan border. As recently as three weeks ago, this column was noting with alarm that the ICU was continuing to sweep up strategic towns and regions throughout the territory of the former Somali state, imposing its puritanical interpretation of Islam and encircling the last redoubt of the internationally-recognized but powerless TFG at Baidoa. Now the tables have been turned and I am not ashamed to admit that I am pleased as punch.
All this, however, does not mean that the United States and its international partners ought to be interpreting the felicitous developments in the Horn of Africa as leave for complacency.
What is needed now more than ever is that "healthy dose of realism" with which I previously counseled confronting what was then a gathering Islamist storm. That realist clarity leads me to recall another swift victory – the U.S.-led coalition's rout of the forces of the late (and unlamented) Saddam Hussein in Iraq nearly four years ago – from whose subsequent hard lessons one can derive three general conclusions concerning the road ahead if the momentum of the current military campaign in Somalia is to be sustained and the narrow window of opportunity which it opens to be seized upon.
First, no matter how stunningly well-executed a conventional military campaign, it is not victory unless it is complete and perceived to be so by those against whom it is targeted.
The Ethiopians ought to know better than anyone else the dangers in not finishing off completely the ICU: in 1996, after Ethiopia defeated the Islamists' earlier incarnation as al-Itihaad al-Islamiya ("the Islamic Union"), wiping out its bases in southern Somalia and killing hundreds of Somali extremists and their foreign allies, it failed to pursue the leadership, which reemerged a decade later as that of the ICU (Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys, chairman of the ICU council, for example, was al-Itihaad's military commander). Now, while the Islamists have apparently abandoned concentrations in urban centers, they are not yet eliminated as a force. Last Saturday, in a farewell speech to Kismaayo residents, one of the ICU's top leaders, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, declared: "The Islamic Courts are still alive and ready to fight the enemy of God."
Ethiopia, whose forces were, at last report, advancing cautiously into Kismayo out of concern for mines and booby traps left by the departing Islamists, is under tremendous pressure to cut off the chase.
The TFG, whose contribution to its own salvation has been humiliatingly negligible, wants to cut some sort of a deal with perceived moderate elements within the ICU lest the phantasmal interim government be exposed for what I have documented in a previous column that it is in fact: a legal fiction imposed on Somalis by the international community with the connivance of a gaggle of self-serving native rent seekers (what else does one call a "government" of ninety ministers with no one to govern?).
The African Union and the states neighboring the conflict zone have already called for the Ethiopians to leave, recognizing that while Ethiopia's preventive intervention may have been justified, the ancient enmity between Muslim Somalis and Ethiopia's historically dominant Amharic and Tigrayan elites, who are largely Christian, risk igniting a wider religious-based conflagration. Likewise, the European Union has weighed in with its not unexpected Venusian-over-Martian call for talks between the toothless TFG and the wounded, but still potent, ICU.
While, as I repeatedly told journalists since the fighting began on December 20, Ethiopia may not have been the ideal intervener in Somalia, better it than no one and perhaps the one thing worse than Ethiopia intervening forcefully is for it to have done so in vain.
Unless the al-Qaeda-linked ICU leadership is utterly and unambiguously defeated – or, in all frankness, better yet, eliminated – they could turn the region between Kismayo and the Kenyan border, into a terrorist hub that exports the conflict from Somali territory across the subregion. It is certainly conceivable that, having been beaten in conventional fighting but not quite destroyed, the Islamists and their foreign supporters could adopt the same non-conventional tactics that foreign jihadis and Sunni Arab insurgents have used to great effect in Iraq. Hence, Ethiopia needs and deserves both diplomatic cover and appropriate material assistance to finish what it has started to the benefit of all except the Somali radicals.
Second, assuming that the military victory is consolidated, the real work begins. Somalia – the Republic of Somaliland, to which I will return, being a case apart – has been without a real government since the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship in 1991.
The international community must reengage to help facilitate the development of a state lest the current defeat of the Islamists be a mere interval before more disorder spreads out from the vacuum.
Engagement, however, does not mean merely throwing good money after bad in the direction of the TFG. The fact that the members of the TFG – or at least those members who had not deserted to the Islamist movement in the days of the latter's ascendancy – cowered behind Ethiopian protection in the provincial outback of Baidoa throughout the conflict and that, as of this past weekend, "President" Abdillahi Yusuf still cannot summon the courage to enter his putative capital of Mogadishu for the first time points to the general lack of legitimacy on the part of his interim "government."
The fact that masked gunmen appeared on the streets of Mogadishu just one day after TFG "Prime Minister" Ali Mohammed Ghedi entered the city suggests that an insurgency may have already begun. If truth were told, while most Somalis chafed under the strictures of Islamist rule, the ICU nonetheless enjoyed – and probably still enjoys – considerably more popular support than the nominal government.
In short, the international community ought to learn the lesson from Iraq that the prospects for imported "leadership" are minimal at best and should revisit the question of the TFG's status.
State-building in Somalia will necessarily be a very long-term process, one that cannot be done in the corridors of conference hotels favored by international functionaries. No, if a Somali state is to arise again, it must do so from the bottom up, beginning with the traditional elders and clan structures of the country. Of course, this means that the resources will have to be found to sustain an extended commitment, perhaps entrusted to the AU or to the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD). However, as the crisis played out in recent months illustrates, the alternative is an even costlier regional and even international conflict, possibly involving the opening of a "third front" in radical Islamism's war against the rest of civilization.
Third, military victory and sustained commitment are still insufficient for a true policy success unless they are both grounded in the realities of the situation.
For example, the one part of the former Somali Democratic Republic that managed to remain above the tides of Islamic radicalism and conflict which have swept across the territory of the collapse state over the last decade and a half is the former British protectorate of Somaliland, in the northwest. Since reclaiming their sovereign independence in 1991 – Somaliland became independent before the Italian trust territory of Somalia to which it later joined in a tragic union – Somalilanders, with little outside help and no international diplomatic recognition, have managed to construct a stable, democratic, and secular government, as I have previously documented in this column.
In fact, in the recent conflict, Somaliland acted as a buffer between the ICU and the tiny republic of Djibouti, where a small U.S. military force, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), is based at a former French Foreign Legion outpost.
Shouldn't Somaliland's peaceful (and democratic) achievement of de facto statehood – for which there is also a considerable body of de jure arguments based on unique circumstances which would not necessarily create inconvenient precedents, as even the normally hesitant AU has acknowledged – count for something? And while the case of the semi-autonomous northeastern region Puntland is qualitatively different from that of Somaliland, the developments there likewise merit encouragement. Hence, unless its inhabitants decide differently, Puntland's autonomy ought to be preserved rather than simply erased in any state-building exercise in Somalia.
Without belaboring the point, might I suggest that, like Iraq, outsiders' attachments to theoretical notions – inter alia, the stubborn clinging to a unitary state and the demands, à la the Iraq Study Group, for the Shi'a and Kurds to strike a "grand bargain" with the Sunnis – often run counter to the concrete realities and legitimate aspirations of the people on the ground?
Thanks to Ethiopia's forceful action while others dawdled, the prospects for the new year are brighter in the Horn of Africa. However, it will take both clear vision and sustained resolution before all of the clouds of extremism and conflict are swept from the region.
– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.
© 2007 J. Peter Pham