In 2006, the Bush administration declared Somalia the latest front in the war on terrorism: a newly influential movement, the Union of Islamic Courts, was suspected of playing host to Al Qaeda there. When this union took over the capital in June 2006, the United States tried to coax moderates within it to enter a dialogue with Somalia’s official government, a toothless institution that was exiled from the capital. But by December of that year, when the Islamic courts seemed about to take down the government entirely, neighboring Ethiopia convinced United States officials that allowing the courts to control Somalia would be tantamount to handing the country to Al Qaeda.
And so, the Ethiopian military moved into Somalia to protect the unpopular government, and for the next two years the United States bankrolled a brutal occupation. Today, no one doubts that this was a tragic error. To defend the dysfunctional government, Ethiopian soldiers robbed, killed and raped with abandon. The perception that the United States had sided with Ethiopia and the African Union internationalized the conflict. Ultimately it allowed Al Qaeda to gain a foothold in a country that American intelligence, in 2007, had declared to be “inoculated” against all kinds of foreign extremist movements.
Sadly, today, the Obama administration is poised to repeat its predecessor’s mistake.
The situation now is very similar to what it was in 2006. The Ethiopian soldiers are gone, but the regime they protected, the so-called Transitional Federal Government, is still in place, now protected by 6,000 African Union peacekeeping troops. Like the Ethiopians before them, African Union soldiers from Uganda and Burundi are inflicting thousands of civilian casualties, indiscriminately shelling neighborhoods in Mogadishu. Today most of southern Somalia is under the control of a vicious mob of teenage radicals known as Al Shabab, who are clearly getting guidance from Al Qaeda and who have proudly claimed responsibility for the attack earlier this month that killed 76 people in Uganda.
Nobody, from the White House to the African Union, can believe that the ineffectual transitional government has any hope of governing Somalia. During the latest round of infighting the speaker of Parliament was ousted and the prime minister was fired (though he has refused to step down), and soon afterward the minister of defense resigned, accusing the government not only of incompetence but also of trying to assassinate him.
Yet in the past 18 months, the international community has trained some 10,000 Somali soldiers to support this government, and American taxpayers have armed them. Seven or eight thousand of these troops have already deserted, taking their new guns with them. Indeed, Somalia’s Western-backed army is a significant source of Al Shabab’s weapons and ammunition, according to the United Nations Monitoring Group.
There are better ways for the United States to prevent the rise of terrorist groups in Somalia. A strategy of “constructive disengagement” — in which the international community would extricate itself from Somali politics, but continue to provide development and humanitarian aid and conduct the occasional special forces raid against the terrorists — would probably be enough to pull the rug out from under Al Shabab. This group, led mostly by foreign extremists fresh from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, is internally divided, and is hated in Somalia.
It has recruited thousands of Somali children into its militias and uses them to brutally impose a foreign ideology on the religiously moderate Somali people. The “child judges,” as they are known, are responsible for many of Al Shabab’s worst human rights violations, including stoning and amputation.
The only way Al Shabab can flourish, or even survive in the long term, is to hold itself up as an alternative to the transitional government and the peacekeepers. If the Somali public did not have to face this grim choice, the thousands of clan and business militiamen would eventually put up a fight against Al Shabab’s repressive religious edicts and taxes. (Somalia’s sheer ungovernability is both its curse and its blessing.) And without a battle against peacekeepers to unite it, Al Shabab would likely splinter into nationalist and transnational factions.
Why has the Obama administration allowed this violent farce to continue? In a nutshell, it has fallen into the same trap as the Bush administration: Distracted by the unwarranted concern that withdrawing the soldiers would allow Al Qaeda to take control of Somalia, the administration argues that it can’t afford to step back.
On the contrary, it can’t afford to do anything else. To truly stabilize Somalia by force would require 100,000 troops. Putting another few thousand on the ground — as the African Union has announced it will do — would only increase the violence. It could also necessitate sending soldiers from Ethiopia or other bordering states, bolstering Al Shabab’s best argument for popular support.
Because plans to send more soldiers to Somalia cannot succeed without American support, the Obama administration is at a significant crossroads. It is essential that it resist the temptation to allow history to repeat itself.
Instead, the United States should negotiate with the moderate elements within Al Shabab. It is not a monolithic movement, after all. Extremists from Kenya, Afghanistan, Somaliland and elsewhere have spoken publicly for the group. But Al Shabab also includes many of the same Somali religious leaders who controlled the Union of Islamic Courts in 2006, the people the Bush administration once hoped to draw into the transitional government. Some of these leaders are extremists, and the idea of talking with them is unappetizing. But the United States can and should negotiate with them directly.
Such an effort would be supported by most Somalis, who are desperate to be rid of the foreign extremists. And it is the best alternative to escalating the violence and strengthening Al Shabab.
Bronwyn Bruton, a former international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.