Negotiating an End to Somalia's War with al Shabaab

Why Military Solutions Aren't Enough


An AMISOM commander in the Yaaqshiid District of Mogadishu. (AU/UN-IST / flickr)

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.

The process of translating the principle of negotiation into practice starts with a third party, country or organization that is willing to take the lead. Turkey and Qatar are natural candidates to help: both the TFG and some, if not many, in the insurgency view the two countries as genuine and credible mediators. Indeed, both have the capacity and the experience in mediating deadly conflicts.

So, for the first time in a while, the corrupt, unstable, and congenitally weak Somali government could enter negotiations from a position of strength. To take advantage of the opportunity, the TFG should form a National Reconciliation Commission that is backed by a legal, political, and financial mandate from the TFG and the international community. To make it work, the NRC would need individuals of considerable integrity and honesty to run it. There would be several candidates: Many within the TFG had -- and continue to maintain -- good relations with key al Shabaab figures. Other members could be drawn from the ranks of Islamic scholars, civil society leaders, and traditional elders. The NRC should be under minimal oversight by the TFG, and its members' personal safety must be guaranteed.

Even if those conditions could be satisfied, holding a dialogue with al Shabaab would undoubtedly be a complex process and require a meticulous plan for where, when, and how to engage. Audrey Cronin, a professor at the School of Public Policy at George Mason University, lays out two main approaches to dialogue. The first is to offer concessions to a rebel group by addressing some of its key demands in the hope that it reconciles with the government.

A good example is the 2008 Djibouti Agreement, which led to the formation of the current TFG. Somalia's then-transitional government granted the Alliance for Reliberation of Somalia (ARS) -- an Islamist-dominated group fighting for the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces -- permission to merge with the new TFG. It also promised that Ethiopia would withdraw from the country. The insurgents took the deal, and the ARS joined the government. That pact forms the basis of the current TFG and is widely cited as a successful reconciliation model.

The second approach, according to Cronin, is to divide the rebels by winning over moderate elements and isolating extremist ones. In this case, negotiators would offer incentives -- payments, jobs, and so on -- to the groups and individuals wishing to reconcile with the government. This approach works best when applied to non-monolithic groups such as al Shabaab.

To make talks work between the TFG and al Shabaab would require using both approaches. Some of al Shabaab's demands -- a government based on Islamic values and the withdrawal of foreign forces -- are popular and have broad constituencies. In addition, the group consists of various factions with different grievances and aspirations, and many of these could be accommodated.

As to the former approach, the first demand is the easier of the two to address. Al Shabaab calls for a government that is based on sharia; the TFG already passed legislation adopting a sharia-compliant constitution. In other words, there is broad agreement among stakeholders regarding the future role of Islam in Somalia. The differences are about the interpretation, application, and timing of sharia. Entering into that debate requires in-depth knowledge of Islam. Al Shabaab's interpretation of Islam is a losing battle, since the group lacks evidence and respected scholars on its side. So, over time, the two sides should be able to arrive at terms that satisfy them both.

The second demand is more challenging. Al Shabaab wants foreign forces to withdraw from Somalia, including Ethiopians, Kenyans, and AMISOM troops. Many Somalis would also like to see Ethiopian and Kenyan troops sent home, because they see them as occupying forces that have territorial ambitions in Somalia. They do not see AMISOM that way, and indeed, that mission will not likely wind down any time soon, mainly because the TFG depends on it for survival. That said, developing a plan to establish and equip a professional Somali force that could eventually handle the security of the country itself would be a win-win. A strong, competent, and professional Somali army -- composed of all sectors of society -- must be the ultimate guarantor of peace. And former al Shabaab fighters, demobilized and retrained, could be integrated into that army.

After dealing with these demands, the negotiating team could tailor specific incentives to al Shabaab's different factions. Sitting at the top of the group is the small but powerful leadership council called Majlis al-Qiyadah. Ideologically, it is al Shabaab's most extreme faction. Although it will not be easy, engaging Majlis al-Qiyad (or part of it) is possible. Just below it is the Qiyadatul Mayadin (field commanders' network), which implements policies as directed by the leadership council. It is comprised mostly of local young men, some of whom belonged to the militias of Somalia's notorious warlords. They view their involvement with al Shabaab as a redemptive act of sorts but do not necessarily espouse the Qiyadah's radical ideology. They could be engaged through traditional elders and Islamic scholars. At the bottom of the group is a vast fighting force. These fighters are not privy to any information, and the al Shabaab leadership does not trust them. Cognizant of this, the youth can be engaged through rehabilitation programs and other material incentives.

During negotiations, the TFG, backed by the international community, could offer general amnesty for those members at the bottom two levels who want to rejoin society. Second, it could develop a cash and employment scheme for young fighters who are not yet radicalized. The remaining incentives could be aimed at the upper echelon of the organization. The TFG, for example, could offer interested members the option of joining the Somali government at a senior level. And good faith efforts to get the United Nations and the United States to remove some al Shabaab names from the terror list would also appeal to the senior and commander-level figures, even if the push is ultimately unsuccessful. Finally, some al Shabaab leaders would certainly entertain the idea of resettling in a different Muslim country. There are several countries that could assist this effort.

The success or failure of negotiations hinges on the extent of the international community's support. The United States must fully endorse the initiative, much as it is has begun engaging the Taliban in Afghanistan. The United Kingdom, which is holding a major conference for Somalia this month, should also embrace dialogue with al Shabaab as part of broad stabilization. TFG leaders have said that they feel dissuaded by regional governments that have overtly opposed engaging al Shabaab. Ethiopia has vehemently resisted talks, because it is worried about the rise of Islamists in the Somali government. (At the same time, it recently signed a peace agreement with a domestic Islamist rebel group.) And there is Kenya, which also has troops in Somalia. It needs to respect the will of the Somali people to resolve their conflicts internally. Certainly, both countries should be reassured that successful dialogue with al Shabaab means a secure and peaceful Somalia and region.

Lest it be forgotten, the TFG is, on its best of days, a fledgling outfit. The government will likely undergo many changes before talks with al Shabaab even begin -- new parliament, new leaders, and new conditions. Regardless of who is at the helm, however, the Somali government and its backers must embrace talks as state-building and counterinsurgency strategy.

Finally, like those of any other extremist group, some of al Shabaab's top leaders will surely reject the negotiations and try to spoil them with violence. This will be a deadly tool, since the TFG is not yet able to provide security to the moderate groups that are interested in negotiating. But that is true during most counterinsurgency talks. The best way to address this challenge is to create secure environments in the areas under TFG control by recruiting and training more Somali forces.

With the conflict in Somalia entering its third decade, it is time for the TFG and the international community to get real about stabilizing the country. Now is the moment to engage al Shabaab while building the security sector of the state -- particularly the coercive instrument of the government as the ultimate guarantor of security.

At the end of the month, British Prime Minister David Cameron will host world, regional, and national leaders in London for a meeting on Somalia. This is an excellent platform from which to build a comprehensive strategy that entails reconciliation and state building (security, political, and economic institutions). Short-term thinking and quick fixes have failed many times in the past. With the right strategy and major-power leadership, peace in the Horn of Africa is within reach.

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