Negotiating an End to Somalia's War with al Shabaab

Why Military Solutions Aren't Enough

In August 2011, after three years of fighting, forces backing the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) took control of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Although this was a welcome development, it was a short-term tactical gain. The strategy that the government and international community are now employing to stabilize Somalia neglects reconciliation with the rebels and relies too much on external military muscle. Further, aside from the efforts of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), military involvement in Somalia has been counterproductive.

The Somali government and its backers should instead focus on establishing a competent security sector and starting genuine negotiations with those rebels who are interested in a political solution -- and there are some. It has long been known that some senior figures of al Shabaab (the al Qaeda-linked militant group that controls most of southern Somalia) would consider negotiating with the government. Moreover, a dialogue now could boost the unpopular TFG's image in the eyes of the Somali people who view the conflict as innately political. Indeed, for the last three years, the TFG has talked about negotiating with its principal enemy, al Shabaab, but has never put forward a serious plan for doing so, mainly because dialogue has never been as high a policy priority as a military victory.

Yet the time is riper than ever. Although it is not close to defeat, al Shabaab is back on its heels. The organization was especially hurt when AMISOM pushed it out of Bakara, the country's largest market and by far the organization's biggest generator of revenue. Recent setbacks have created a rift within the upper echelon of al Shabaab. One camp is calling for a guerilla-style war, noting the group's dwindling resources, while a rival wing is bent on continuing the head-to-head fighting, contending that it is the only a credible path to military victory. Complicating matters is al Shabaab's image problem: It has alienated the Somali people with its assassinations, attacks against innocent civilians, and poor management of last year's famine.

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