The U.S. government needs to change its Somalia policy -- and fast. For the better part of two decades, instability and violence have confounded U.S. and international efforts to bring peace to Somalia. The international community's repeated attempts to create a government have failed, even backfired. The United States' efforts since 9/11 to prevent Somalia from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda have alienated large parts of the Somali population, polarized the country's diverse Islamist reform movement into moderate and extremist camps, and propelled indigenous Salafi jihadist groups to power. One of these groups, a radical youth militia known as al Shabab, now controls most of Somalia's southern half and has established links with al Qaeda. The brutal occupation of Somalia by its historical rival Ethiopia from late 2006 to early 2009, which Washington openly supported, only fueled the insurgency and infuriated Somalis across the globe.
One of Washington's concerns today is that al Qaeda may be trying to develop a base somewhere in Somalia from which to launch attacks outside the country. Another is that more and more alienated members of the Somali diaspora might embrace terrorism, too. Somali nationals were arrested in Minnesota in early 2009 after returning from fighting alongside al Shabab, and in August 2009, two Somalis were arrested in Melbourne for planning a major suicide attack on an Australian army installation. The first American ever to carry out a suicide bombing did so in Somalia in October 2008. These isolated incidents have generated more hype than they deserve, but they have nonetheless put the Obama administration in a tough position. If only to avoid seeming weak in combating terrorism, it must prevent these threats from escalating, but it is entering the fray at a time when almost any international action in Somalia is likely to reinforce the Somalis' anti-Western posture.
Alarmingly, the State Department seems not to realize this or the failures of past policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is clinging to the bankrupt strategy of supporting the Transitional Federal Government, Somalia's notional government but really a dysfunctional institution that has failed to garner much support from the population. Barricaded in a small corner of Mogadishu behind a wall of international peacekeepers, the TFG is incapable of advancing the United States' primary interests: stopping the expansion of extremist forces throughout Somalia and preventing the formation of al Qaeda cells, other radical strongholds, and training camps in the country. If anything, the TFG's presence in Somalia hurts U.S. goals. Resistance to the so-called government has united various radical groups that would otherwise be competing with one another. These groups and the TFG are now locked in a violent stalemate that is further battering the population, making it more likely that certain corners of Somalia will eventually become hospitable environments for al Qaeda. With 3.8 million people urgently in need of relief, Somalia has once again become the site of one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
This error stems from Washington's mistaken belief that state building is the best response to terrorism. Because Washington has lacked both the political will and the resources to launch a large enough state-building program, U.S. efforts in Somalia have been inadequate. Neither Clinton nor the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, appears ready to support the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force in Somalia. Even if enough resources were available, the conditions on the ground mean the approach would be unlikely to work anyway. Somalis may have grown weary of war, but they remain highly suspicious of centralized government. And they disagree about questions as fundamental as whether a Somali state should be unitary, federal, or confederal; whether the judicial system should be wholly Islamic or a hybrid of sharia and secular law; and whether the northern territory of Somaliland should be granted its long-sought independence. Efforts to create a central government under such conditions are a recipe for prolonging conflict.
Another major problem with Washington's Somalia policy is that it has not kept pace with important shifts in U.S. thinking about how to confront terrorism. In Afghanistan and Iraq, for example, General David Petraeus, former U.S. commander in Iraq; General David McKiernan, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan; and David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert, among others, have successfully steered U.S. counterterrorism strategies away from militarized tactics focused on killing the enemy. They have promoted more integrated, population-centric approaches that engage traditional local political authorities, civil society, and a wide range of religious actors -- strategies that stand a better chance of reducing the tensions between the United States' counterterrorism, humanitarian, and stabilization goals. John Brennan, the president's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism, has said that efforts are under way to develop a new Somalia policy along these lines, but they seem to have been hampered by the lack of an intelligence infrastructure and reliable partners on the ground.
Both to protect its interests in Somalia and to help the country, Washington must abandon its hope of building a viable state there and explore new counterterrorism strategies. Perhaps even more important, it needs to better understand the exact nature of the threat that Somalia poses to U.S. national security. For example, piracy has flourished not in the country's anarchic south but in the weakly governed northern regions. And it is a problem of organized crime, not terrorism. Any links between the pirates and al Shabab are profit-motivated, which suggests that even for al Shabab, ideology can yield to pragmatism. The emergence of yet another indigenous jihadist movement in a faraway corner of the world does not merit a militarized response from the United States or its allies, especially when the absence of reliable intelligence on the ground means that even discrete attacks on terrorist suspects could do more harm than good.
The presence of al Qaeda operatives in Somalia is alarming, of course, but it does not mean that transnational terrorism will necessarily spread. In its previous inroads into Somalia, al Qaeda bumped up against Somalia's xenophobia and its pragmatic, clannish political culture. In the midst of the UN's invasive state-reconstruction effort in the 1990s, much of the country fell under the control of al Itihaad al Islamiya, a radical movement with links to al Qaeda. But the al Qaeda operatives in the country soon conflicted with recalcitrant nationalist leaders (they considered the locals cowardly for refusing to subscribe to jihad) and were frustrated by the fractious local Islamists and the harsh living conditions, according to a West Point study based on intercepted correspondence. By the mid-1990s, al Itihaad al Islamiya was essentially defunct. Since then, U.S. intelligence analysts have argued that Somalia is fundamentally inhospitable to foreign jihadist groups. Al Qaeda is now a more sophisticated and dangerous creature, but its current foothold in Somalia appears to be largely the product of the West's latest interference. In fact, the terrorist threat posed by Somalia has grown in proportion to the intrusiveness of international policies toward the country. Al Shabab metamorphosed from a fringe movement opposed to the foreign-backed TFG into a full-blown political insurgency only after the U.S.-supported Ethiopian invasion.
It is time for the United States to adopt a policy of constructive disengagement toward Somalia. Giving up on a bad strategy is not admitting defeat. It is simply the wise, if counterintuitive, response to the realization that sometimes, as in Somalia, doing less is better.
THE GRIP OF TERROR
For decades, Somalia was little more to Americans than a pawn in the Cold War. Then, in 1992, U.S. televisions were flooded with images of dying Somali children, the victims of brutal warlords and their civil war. With Operation Restore Hope, the U.S. government set out to respond not only to the humanitarian emergency but also to the clarion call of a new era of peacemaking and multilateral cooperation. Initially intended as a relief effort, the mission soon got mired in Somalia's violent internal politics. On July 12, 1993, U.S. forces mistakenly attacked a peaceful meeting of clan elders, killing 73 civilians. The mission had derailed, and a few months later it hit bottom when a Somali mob desecrated the corpses of U.S. soldiers. The incident, known as "Black Hawk down," was a bewildering assault on the American public's self-image, not to mention a low-water mark of the Clinton administration, and it left the Americans and the Somalis distrustful of each other. For close to a decade afterward, the U.S. government effectively let Somalia be.
Even so, it remained concerned. After the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and then 9/11, what had once seemed like a humanitarian imperative to intervene in Somalia receded. The growing concern that the country's lawless territories could become a safe haven for al Qaeda quickly drove the Bush administration's Somalia policy, producing a series of failed political interventions designed to create a central government in Somalia. In 2002, the UN bankrolled efforts by regional actors to set up a transitional government. Negotiations with warlords and clan and civil-society leaders sputtered for a couple of years and then bred the TFG. The TFG's purpose was to balance the interests of all of Somalia's clans, but in practice, it was dominated by the Darod clan, from the north. This left the Hawiye, Somalia's majority clan, feeling like it had been shortchanged, and it responded by striking an anti-TFG alliance of convenience with the business community and a group of sharia courts in Mogadishu. The alliance's goal was to restore enough order in the capital, a Hawiye stronghold, to undermine the Darod's efforts to locate the seat of government elsewhere. Meanwhile, a group of militant youths formed al Shabab, and although it, too, was associated with the coalition, it belonged to its more radical and violent fringe and started assassinating members of the TFG.
Had it not been for the United States' counterterrorism efforts, the sharia courts and al Shabab might have remained marginal. By early 2006, the TFG's inability to govern was evident; the group no longer posed a meaningful threat to the Hawiye. The defensive alliance it had struck with the Islamists and the business community quickly fizzled out. Al Shabab remained isolated, but some businesspeople and criminals were still compelled to form the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, a pro-government group intent on capturing and deporting suspected terrorists. Public outrage over the United States' support of the group, which included several despised warlords, sparked a vicious four-month battle for the control of Mogadishu that eventually brought the Islamic Courts Union, the Hawiye-backed sharia courts, to power. The ICU's rise was the result more of happenstance than strategy, but by quickly bringing an unprecedented degree of order to Mogadishu, the movement generated nationwide enthusiasm, and the sharia-court model was soon replicated across the country. At first, Washington encouraged the TFG to negotiate with the ICU, but it stopped as soon as it understood that al Shabab was effectively operating as the ICU's military arm and was intent on enforcing a harsh version of sharia law. The ICU's policies quickly became unpopular with the public, but Ethiopia nonetheless grew nervous about having a hostile jihadist army that close and so sold to the U.S. government the notion that al Qaeda was controlling the ICU. It was a small step from there to Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia.
The move, which occurred in December 2006, with U.S. support, was a catastrophe. By then, the ICU had exhausted the Somalis' patience, and it dissolved overnight, its leaders scattering into the bush in southern Somalia or fleeing to Eritrea. Ethiopia was forced to occupy Mogadishu to prop up the unpopular TFG, and its presence ignited a complex insurgency. Rampant human rights abuses by the Ethiopian army and the TFG's forces, including the firing of mortar on hospitals and the indiscriminate shelling of civilians, turned the population against the government and its patron, the United States. Washington aggravated the outrage by dropping bombs on terrorist targets and thereby allegedly killing scores of civilians. Jihadists from the Middle East, sensing an unprecedented opportunity to find a foothold in the shifting sands of Somalia's conflict, poured resources into the hands of al Shabab. It recruited a host of angry, desperate young fighters. Experienced terrorists arrived from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan -- even Malaysia -- and brought with them suicide bombings and sophisticated tactics such as remote-controlled detonations. By the time the Ethiopian forces withdrew in early 2009, al Shabab's influence had spread throughout southern Somalia.
Under the Bush administration, Somalia became a front in the war on terrorism. A messy decades-long conflict was recast as an ideological battle between secular democracy and Islam, between "moderates" and "extremists" -- blunt categories that blurred important differences in ideologies and tactics. This oversimplification has both severely undermined the capacity of U.S. and other international representatives to relate to the Somali public and allowed al Shabab to unify an otherwise diverse array of actors into a motivated armed opposition.
There are now two dominant camps in Somalia, the vocally pro-Western TFG and the vocally radical al Shabab. Although they seem diametrically opposed, both are alliances of fortune, and the line between them is thinner than is often believed. Both are mostly driven by clannish and economic interests that often trump ideology in determining allegiances. Yet many experts and diplomats, including Secretary of State Clinton, make much of the groups' differences and argue that the TFG is Somalia's "best chance" for peace, a label that has been attached to every Somali government since 2000. The current optimism centers on the designation of a new president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, a Muslim cleric who had been vilified by the State Department when he chaired the ICU but was conveniently resurrected as a peacemaker in late 2008, in the run-up to Ethiopia's withdrawal from Somalia. Sheik Sharif has attempted to position the revamped TFG as a moderate Islamist government, primarily by promising to implement sharia law. But his willingness to engage with Ethiopia and the West has hampered his efforts. The TFG has been categorically rejected as a proxy of the West by the bulk of Somalia's armed political opposition, and although it has won some hearts and minds, it has failed to generate much grass-roots support. The TFG's paramilitary forces -- a ragtag cluster of groups beholden to various warlords with posts in the government -- are a shambles. Even though the United States and its allies have tried to prop up these underpaid forces with ammunition and training, they, as well as members of the TFG and foreign peacekeepers, have been accused of selling munitions to al Shabab for profit -- a claim that seems to be substantiated by the precipitous drop in munitions prices on Mogadishu's black market. Except among hard-liners in al Shabab, loyalty is in short supply.
Even if the TFG were able to control more territory, this would serve little good: the government is simply incapable of governing. The parliament has swollen to an unwieldy 550 members. Most of its members reside safely outside the country, and the remainder are paralyzed by factionalism and infighting; just getting a parliamentary quorum in Mogadishu requires Herculean support from the UN. The ad hoc addition of Sheik Sharif's Islamist faction to the TFG's clan-based structure, and the parliament's promise to implement some still unspecified form of sharia law, has turned the TFG into a muddle of Islamist and democratic ideologies. The government's only real value is to provide a legitimating façade for the international community's opposition to al Shabab.
This opposition largely takes the form of the African Union's mission to Somalia, known as AMISOM. But so far, this effort has been as ineffective as previous international interventions in Somalia. With support from Washington and the United Nations, the AU is desperately trying to increase AMISOM's contingent from 5,000 troops to 8,000 and is arguing that these forces should be free to launch preemptive attacks on al Shabab. In August, Secretary of State Clinton promised to help the AU increase its supplies of munitions to the TFG forces. Like the Ethiopian forces that came before it, AMISOM is widely viewed as a combatant in the conflict and has been accused by the local press and some clan leaders of firing indiscriminately on civilians. Both al Shabab and legitimate authorities among the clans and Mogadishu's local clerics council have called for ousting the troops. Under these circumstances, bolstering the AMISOM contingent is a fool's errand. At the height of its occupation of Mogadishu in 2008, the 15,000 forces led by the Ethiopian army made no headway against the al Shabab-led insurgency. A decisive military response against today's more powerful and better-organized radical camp would require far more troops than AMISOM or the TFG could ever muster.
That said, the radical camp is in no better shape than the TFG. Based in the port city of Kismaayo, it is an awkward coalition of opportunistic clan factions, fundamentalist nationalists, and a few vocal al Qaeda supporters who are committed to the Salafi strand of Islam, control substantial resources sent from the Middle East, and have capitalized on the international hysteria surrounding terrorism. Al Shabab's hold on power, especially its purported control over territory, is weak. Although it holds sway over much of the country's southern half (except for the central districts of Galgaduud and Hiiraan), it does not govern so much as occupy territory through a mixture of public relations, manipulation of local clan conflicts, and outright intimidation. At the approach of a hostile militia, al Shabab often melts into the bush and keeps away until reinforcements arrive. Its blunt efforts to impose sharia law have irritated clans across the country, as have its attempts to ignite local conflicts. Its meddling in Galgaduud, for example, prompted warring Hawiye subclans there to form a counterforce of local clans and business factions. This alliance is often described as a moderate Islamist movement because it has adopted the banner of Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama (ASWJ), an apolitical, nonmilitary organization that represents the practice of Sufi mysticism. Thanks to the group's heavy reliance on financial and logistic support from the Ethiopian army, al Shabab has already managed to depict it as another proxy of the West.
As al Shabab has gained ground, it has attracted opportunists and consequently has fractured along both ideological and clan lines. The inclusion of more pragmatic, nationalist factions, such as Hizbul Islam, itself an alliance of convenience, led by Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, has challenged the dominance of the radical leaders. Sheik Aweys is a wanted terrorist suspect, but he is distinctly less radical than his counterparts in Kismaayo. He has periodically appeared open to negotiation with the TFG. Al Shabab may be a brutal local political movement, in other words, but it is not a transnational terrorist organization that might one day pose a serious threat to U.S. national security. It has stirred only a few hundred true fanatics -- not thousands -- and attracted many more thugs, mostly teenage boys. The disturbing acts of violence that have dominated media reports, including beheadings and amputations and the pulling of gold fillings from the teeth of ordinary Somalis, are often committed by illiterate children rather than radical leaders. There has been little reporting in the West of the fact that a wide majority of al Shabab factions have actively cooperated with international humanitarian relief efforts -- if only for a fee -- and that many of them have publicly condemned terrorist activities and banditry.
The presence of al Qaeda operatives in al Shabab's ranks is indeed alarming, but it is as much a tactical arrangement as an ideological alignment. And the utility for al Shabab of having foreign jihadists fighting by its side will decrease as doing so begins to impede the group's hopes of governing Somalia: many Somalis condemn the presence of foreign fighters in the country on the grounds that they are bound to promote non-Somali values or act like brutal colonizers. Unless the outsiders learn to adopt nonviolent Sufi Islamic practices, their involvement will not last. Sheik Muktar Robow, the former spokesperson of al Shabab and once a backer of al Qaeda, has publicly argued this point. And in fact, differences of opinion have developed between the radicals in Kismaayo and their Hizbul Islam hosts.
The tenuous nature of these alliances means there is no clear horse on which the U.S. government can bet. Both the TFG and al Shabab have backers among Somalis, but neither can count on a critical mass. The ostensibly moderate ASWJ has local supporters, but its factionalism and its dependence on Ethiopia are likely to undermine its capacity to generate a national constituency. No doubt this is a problem for the advocates of state building, who were counting on the TFG to be the solution to anarchy. But the weakness of all the parties is also something of a blessing: it means that al Shabab is less powerful than is often feared. The implications of this are clear. With no side capable of keeping the peace if it wins the war, the U.S. government, as well as the rest of the international community, should not focus its efforts on backing any one group. It should also forget about grand political projects to create a central government authority, which are likely to be futile.
PARSING THE PLAYERS
Backing off this way entails risks, including the possibility that al Shabab will cement, if only temporarily, its hold on southern Somalia. But this is the only way to ensure that the growing tensions within al Shabab and the latent tensions between al Shabab and al Qaeda will play out. Exploiting these tensions is the most reliable and cost-effective means of fighting terrorism in Somalia.
It will be impossible to isolate the truly dangerous elements from the nationalist, the pragmatic, and the merely thuggish factions of al Shabab until the United States stops supporting one group over another and disconnects local conflicts in Somalia from broader counterterrorism efforts. Washington's first step, after abandoning what has been its policy for years now, should be to learn to coexist with al Shabab: since the movement is a coalition of fortune, it is susceptible to realignment under the right conditions, and the quickest method of creating those conditions is to open the door to coexistence with the West. Removing al Shabab from the U.S. government's list of terrorist organizations may be too controversial politically in the United States, but it might be possible to delist specific individuals. For example, Sheik Aweys, whose ambitions of becoming a mainstream national leader have been undermined by his status as a terrorist, has reportedly expressed a keen desire to be taken off the list. Granting his wish could induce him to condemn the imposition of a foreign Salafi agenda on Somalia and to delink the Hizbul Islam movement from al Shabab. The same may be true of the many other opportunistic actors who have aligned with the al Shabab leadership in order to resist Western influence in Somalia or simply to survive.
It is in the United States' interest to learn to distinguish these actors from its real enemies. But that would mean not taking all pro-al Shabab rhetoric at face value and tolerating uncertainty while the local struggle for influence plays out, town by town. Being patient now would not foreclose the possibility of a military intervention later, but it would reduce the likelihood that such an effort would be needed.
Isolating the truly dangerous factions of al Shabab would also require addressing legitimate local grievances. A plurality of important Somali actors -- al Shabab, Hizbul Islam, Mogadishu's local clerics council, and the Hawiye leadership -- want the foreign troops to leave and foreign governments to interfere less in Somalia's political affairs. This may be too much for the United States and its allies to concede: they want to keep AMISOM in Mogadishu to monitor the situation there, prevent the TFG's collapse, and support international humanitarian relief efforts. But a compromise may be possible. Washington could urge the AU and the UN to either disband the TFG or -- perhaps a more palatable option -- relocate it outside Somalia. The AU could then negotiate for AMISOM to remain on the condition that it only deliver humanitarian relief. If AMISOM's mandate is so redefined, its presence should no longer be as controversial. And as long as the force stays in Mogadishu -- and retains its control over the airport and the port -- the TFG's removal would not seem like an admission of defeat: the international community could still defend itself against the charge that al Shabab overtook the capital. Such a decisive shift from Washington's current interventionist strategy could help undo the harm caused by past U.S. policy and set the stage for more constructive engagement down the line.
GRASS ROOTS VERSUS ASTROTURF
At some later point, when the anti-U.S. sentiment has subsided, it will indeed be desirable for Washington to try to address the deeper causes of anarchy in Somalia. But it will have to be extremely mindful not to revive past prescriptions, including the idea of finding and supporting national political figures in Somalia. Somalia's leaders, including Sheik Sharif and Sheik Aweys, have limited constituencies and lack credibility across clan and regional lines. The U.S. government should maintain a neutral posture toward clan leaders and warlords alike while also being careful not to empower them and trigger rivalries. It should refrain from trying to achieve an equitable balance of power among Somalia's fractious clans. So far, that approach has succeeded only in creating a very large and very paralyzed government.
Given the shortage of viable national leaders, bottom-up governance strategies might appear to be a solution to Somalia's messy, perpetually shifting decentralized politics. For instance, the experience of the ICU, which brought unparalleled stability to an unruly Mogadishu almost overnight in 2006, is instructive. Its ideology may have been distasteful, but its tenure did amount to a kind of inclusive and homegrown rule-of-law project: administered by religious leaders, supervised by the clans, underwritten by Mogadishu's business community, and ardently embraced by the public. The ICU's rise was the result of an exceptional confluence of trends that would be difficult to replicate: the growing influence of local sharia courts as a source of law and order, the business community's willingness to invest in promoting public security, a clan-based backlash against international efforts to back the TFG and then the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, and the population's readiness for peace. And its tenure was short; proving too inclusive for its own good, the ICU was quickly co-opted by al Shabab. Nonetheless, the ICU's stint in power is proof that effective governance can emerge rapidly in Somalia when the conditions are right. Such arrangements, although admittedly fragile, have emerged in the northern regions of Somaliland and Puntland. The best of them depend on local, rather than international, resources to deliver economic growth and other concrete benefits to the public and respect relations among clan and religious leaders, business groups, and civil society.
These arrangements stand in marked contrast to another kind of bottom-up approach, the so-called building blocks strategy favored by the UN during the 1990s. In theory, that approach is intended to empower local actors, but in practice, its focus on appointing officials and building professionalized institutions tends to make it so prescriptive as to leave little room for local innovations. It is a bottom-up approach with all the drawbacks of a top-down approach: it breeds conflicts over representation, diverts resources into futile capacity-building projects, and creates clunky administrative structures that local tax revenues cannot support.
Rather than endorsing this pseudo-grass-roots approach or formally promoting models of governance, the U.S. government should support cooperative, community-based development efforts. Development can, and ultimately will, lay the foundation for equitable, sustainable political reform in Somalia. Local reconciliation efforts driven by the practical need to manage various clans' access to water and grazing land have been very successful, most spectacularly in the conflict-ridden town of Gaalkacyo. The need to renegotiate and enforce arrangements over water and land has provided regular opportunities for dialogue and compromise. The Hawiye and Darod clans of Gaalkacyo have also leveraged these negotiations into broader cooperation, for example, creating a joint security force and primary schools attended by both clans. Before the Ethiopian invasion in late 2006, such deals had significantly reduced instability across Somalia. Likewise, local nongovernmental organizations, notably the women's group SAACID, have been experimenting with cross-community development projects -- ranging from food relief to citywide garbage collection -- with outstanding results. The programs are designed and organized in open meetings, and the distribution of benefits is conditional on active cross-clan cooperation.
Somali actors are generally responsive to economic incentives. Most combatants are freelancers who have been forced to join militias out of economic need; in fact, they are often stigmatized as bandits for making such a move. In order to give them options other than employment with militias, the United States should promote targeted local development initiatives, such as a decentralized microcredit scheme that would engage both the Somali diaspora worldwide and existing local authorities. So long as these projects steer clear of governance reform, they might encourage the public to pressure local Islamists into distancing themselves from radical anti-Western actors.
Somali communities already rely on indigenous trust-based credit-sharing mechanisms, known as hagbed, and Somalia receives approximately $1 billion in remittances each year, mostly from the United States and the Middle East. Most of these funds are spent to meet individual needs, such as food and health care, but if even a fraction were harnessed for use in broader community-development projects, the money could stimulate local enterprise. That, in turn, would support efforts by community leaders to provide Somali youths with alternatives to employment with the militias. Washington should engage its international partners to create a microcredit and community-development fund that would raise contributions from the Somali diaspora and match them one to one. For example, a member of the diaspora could be convinced to contribute $5 of every $200 he would normally send to his family back home to a community-development fund instead, and that amount would then be matched, dollar for dollar, by the international community.