A Fleeting Victory in Somalia

By Jonathan Stevenson, a professor of strategic studies at the United States Naval War College (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 08/01/07):

SOMALIA’S internationally recognized government pulled off a stunning military victory over its Islamist rivals, taking control of the capital, Mogadishu, and the key port city of Kismayo last week. This may appear to bode well for the containment of Islamism on the Horn of Africa. But unless America plays a constructive role in Somalia’s next stage, the conflict could become a regional war and a new field of jihad.

The success of the Transitional Federal Government and its current prevalence were made possible entirely through the help of troops from neighboring Ethiopia, many of them trained and equipped by the United States. Nevertheless, Ethiopia cannot be expected to act as the government’s main force indefinitely. Nor, eventually, will Somalis, who are almost all Sunni Muslims, tolerate an open-ended occupation by Ethiopians, who are predominantly Christians.

Enforcing peace in a politically atomized territory is remarkably difficult, as was painfully demonstrated by the American intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s. Turning a humanitarian mission into a coercive state-building effort angered local militia bosses, leading to the now-infamous “Black Hawk Down” attack.

The Ethiopians, being thoroughly familiar with the American experience and the Somalis’ historical tendency to resist external influence, are already talking about pulling out within a few months.

What’s more, the American invasion of Iraq illuminates some drawbacks to any extended Ethiopian military presence in Somalia. Al Qaeda’s leadership would inevitably cast such a commitment as the non-Muslim occupation of a Muslim land. This would draw foreign jihadists into the conflict and lead to greater Islamic radicalization of Somalis themselves.

Indeed, Ethiopia’s intervention and the United Nations Security Council’s authorization of a notional peacekeeping force have already prompted the Islamic Courts Council to declare jihad. Once bitten, twice shy, the United States should be loath to perpetuate this kind of blowback. Similar considerations also argue against a peacekeeping force led by a major power — even if one could be marshaled, which at present looks unlikely.

The upshot is that there is no military solution to the quandary of Somalia. Robust diplomacy, with an eye toward creating some sort of power-sharing agreement between the transitional government and the Islamic Courts Council, appears to be the only hope. Given the recent struggles in Darfur, Congo and elsewhere, the idea of bringing Africans to the negotiating table might cause Westerners to roll their eyes. But there are a few hopeful signs that, in Somalia, diplomacy has a chance.

For one thing, the European Union has shown an interest in becoming an honest broker among the main Somali factions. And Kenya, alarmed by the prospect of tens of thousands of Somali refugees pouring across its northern border, may feel compelled to resume its longstanding diplomatic role in Somali conflict resolution.

Finally, neither the transitional government nor the Islamic courts are in a position to take over wholesale governance of the country: the various clan leaders, tribal elders and militia bosses around Somalia together control the pulse of power. In fact, it was the decision by dozens of local clan elders to withdraw their political and military backing that made it impossible for the Islamic Courts Council to defend Mogadishu and Kismayo.

This parlay underscored how central the elders are to Somalia’s tenuous political equilibrium, especially those of the four main clans — the Darod, Hawiye, Dir and Digil-Mirifle — and their various sub-clans. These leaders must be included in any peace negotiation, and any deal with their backing would be hard for the Islamists or the transitional government to walk away from.

The knottiest substantive issue would likely be deciding to what extent Islamic sharia law would apply in Somalia. Naturally, the Islamic courts have insisted on universal religious law, while the secular transitional government has refused to entertain it. But there is recent African precedent for breaking the deadlock.

In January 2005, persistent negotiations overseen by the United States, European powers and Kenya produced a power-sharing compromise between southern Sudanese Christians and Sudan’s Arab Muslim government. The deal was that sharia would apply in the northern part of the country and not in the south, and that its applicability in the capital, Khartoum, was to be decided by an elected assembly. While the unrelated violence in Sudan’s Darfur region has overshadowed this deal, it was a major breakthrough between two groups far more religiously divided than the two Muslim Somali sides.

The temptation in Washington will be to keep its distance and rely on Ethiopia, the European Union and Kenya for as long as possible. This attitude is myopic. Neither the American public nor the world believe that the Bush administration’s predominantly military approach to counterterrorism is working. Relying primarily on Ethiopian troops to tamp down Somali Islamism would represent a continuation of that flawed model, and of the corresponding risk of fueling the jihad.

The United States’ full participation in a diplomatic process in the Horn of Africa, on the other hand, would constitute a relatively low-cost way of signaling a new American approach to Islam and a re-engagement in sub-Saharan Africa, which has largely been left out of Washington’s post-9/11 calculus. A result could be a small political victory in the Muslim world that would deprive Osama bin Laden and his followers of a new grievance rather than supplying them with one.