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If anything, the precarious nature of situation in Mogadishu was underscored last Thursday, September 17th, when al-Shabaab suicide bombers, driving United Nations vehicles, carried out a coordinated assault on the headquarters of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), leaving 21 peacekeepers dead, including the deputy force commander, Major General Juvenal Niyonguruza of Burundi, and dozens wounded, including the newly-arrived force commander, Major General Nathan Mugisha. While al-Shabaab claimed that the attack was retaliation for the killing of Nabhan, the attack seems to have been prepared long before the September 14th operation by U.S. Special Operations Forces personnel. In fact, the UN was investigating whether or not the explosives-laden trucks might have been left behind in Eritrea after the truce-monitoring UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) had to be abandoned last year after the Isaias Afewerki regime in Asmara drove it away from the border zone (as I reported earlier this year, the Eritrean government has been accused by both the subregional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Council of Ministers and the African Union Peace and Security Council of financing and otherwise supporting the Somali insurgents). In any event, the attack on the peacekeepers may just be the beginning of a campaign that increasingly targets the nearly 5,000 Ugandan and Burundian AMISOM troops: on Sunday, Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, head of Hisbul Islam, called for more suicide bombings: “I also call upon the people to carry out more attacks against the African forces; they came to Somalia to assist our enemy, kill them…in any way possible and use suicide attacks to kill them.” While no new suicide bombings have taken place, insurgents did launch additional conventional assaults on the AU troops this week. The ensuing gun battles in the middle of Mogadishu left at least eight people dead and dozens injured.
In sharp contrast to the highly-motivated multitudes which a video released by al-Shabaab over the weekend showed pledging their allegiance to Osama bin Laden, the dwindling band around the nominal “Transitional Federal Government” of Somalia and its head, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed is largely dispirited. And it is highly unlikely that anything the United States or the international community can do to shore up the beleaguered regime’s operational capabilities in time to head off its inevitable denouement, much less to endow it with popular support and legitimacy. After long being in denial, as Geoffrey York reported in the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, Somali politicians – at least the ones who are being frank – are finally admitting the truth of what I told the U.S. Congress in my June testimony to the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health: the approximately 40 tons of weapons that the United States has supplied to the TFG as well as the regime’s remaining troops are increasingly ending up with the Islamist insurgents. Awad Ahmed Ashareh, a TFG parliamentarian, told York that “the weapons have ended up mainly in the hands of al-Shabaab.” He was echoed by his parliamentary colleague, former TFG prime minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, who conceded that “all those weapons will end up in the hands of the terrorists,” adding that most of the regime’s trained forces have disintegrated and “some of them may even have joined the terrorists.”
Given all of this, it came as no surprise either when it was announced this week that Kenya had sealed off its common border with Somalia or when it came out that Sheikh Sharif is again absent from the country he pretends to lead (this time to attend some ceremony at a Saudi university and then onward to New York for his turn at the podium at the 64th session of the UN General Assembly). And while the AU’s special representative for Somalia, Burundian diplomat Nicolas Bwakira, has offered brave words about a more robust mandate for the peacekeepers at the burial of his compatriots who lost their lives to the terrorist attack last week, there is no indication that any African countries, including those who have yet to honor their previous promises to join the Burundian and Ugandan forces in Mogadishu, are in any rush to send their soldiers into what should be increasingly clear is a near-hopeless mission.
So what is one to do if one seeks a minimum level of security in Somalia and stability in the subregion? Robert Rotberg of HarvardUniversity’s Kennedy School of Government offered some helpful pointers in a Boston Globe op-ed last Saturday:
"Diminishing Islamist and Al Qaeda franchise influence in Somalia will only come by growing the influence of secular, non-governmental (if Muslim) Somalis, by finding a way to restart a state school and health care system, and by assisting the drought-prone Somalis with their water (and agricultural and grazing) requirements.
"The Obama administration would do well to begin thinking about Somalia as a post-conflict arena, needing reconstruction and new incentives, rather than an Al Qaeda outpost run from Pakistan by Osama bin Laden. It is not such as outpost, even though a handful of persons like Saleh Nabhan will continue to agitate in or pass through the badlands of Somalia and work closely with al-Shabaab.
Dr. Rotberg goes on to specifically advocate the recognition of the Republic of Somaliland:
"One other bold diplomatic initiative would make a difference. To the north of the warlord- and al-Shabaab-run zones of Somalia is Somaliland, which has run itself sensibly and mostly democratically since 1991. Its leadership is having problems, but for many years it delivered positive political goods to its citizens in a manner that has never occurred in the rest of Somalia. No nation recognizes Somaliland even though its neighbors do business there and the United States has long kept an official eye on it.
"The United States, the West, and Africa should recognize Somaliland officially. Doing so would provide an incentive for the rest of Somalia to begin moving toward good rather than bad governance. The Somaliland example provides a path that could now entice Somalis to forsake their battles in favor of a peaceful future.
Having myself penned a commentary two months ago entitled “Somaliland: What Somalia Could Be” and despite the disappointing postponement sine die of the presidential and legislative elections which were supposed to have taken place this weekend, I cannot but strongly reiterate my argument:
"The people of Somaliland have demonstrated over the course of nearly two decades a dogged commitment to peacefully resolving their internal conflicts, rebuilding their society, and forging a democratic constitutional order. Their achievements to date are nothing short of remarkable in subregion as challenging as the Horn of Africa, especially when one considers the lack of international recognition under which they labor. It is not only prejudicial to our interests, but also antithetical to our ideals, to keep this oasis of stability hostage to the vicissitudes of the conflict which the rest of the Somali territories are embroiled rather than to hold it up as an example of what the others might aspire to—and could readily achieve if they weren’t so busy fighting over the decayed carcass of a dead state and the resources which the international community stubbornly continues to throw at it in hopes of reanimating the corpse.
However, it is a time to take this logic one step further. While one cannot claim for it the unique historical, juridical, and political status that Somaliland has by reason of the British Somaliland Protectorate, the internationally recognized sovereign statehood achieved a week before the former Italian colony of Somalia received its independence and subsequent the tragic union of the two polities, and the continuous de facto separation from the rest of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic and its troubles after the 1991 collapse of the Siyad Barre dictatorship – a status sanctioned by clan consensus, constitutional referendum, and democratic elections that hitherto have been the envy of the subregion – there is a pragmatic case to be made that the United States and the international community need to find ways to engage with the Puntland State of Somalia.
In May 1998, tired of being held back by the constant violence and overall lack of social and political progress in southern and central Somalia, a major conference of traditional clan elders of the Darood clan-family’s Harti clan – a group that includes the Dhulbahante, Majeerteen, and Warsangeli sub-clans – meet in the town of Garowe and established an autonomous administration for a region in northeastern Somalia which they dubbed “Puntland,” which they envisioned encompassing the regions of Ayn, Bari, Karkaar, Mudug, and Nugaal, as well as the Sanaag and Sool regions which, while inhabited by many Darood/Harti, are within the borders which Somaliland inherited from the British Protectorate.
After extensive consultations within the Darood/Harti clans and sub-clans, an interim charter was adopted which provided for a parliament whose members were chosen on a clan basis and who, in turn, elected a regional president, the first being Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed who, in October 2004, went on to get himself appointed president of the TFG. Following the departure of the region’s first president for what was to be his disastrous tenure at the head of the TFG, Puntland legislators chose General Mohamud Muse Hersi, a.k.a. Muse Adde, as the new head of the regional administration in January 2005. After serving one four-year term of office, Muse Adde lost a bid for reelection to Abdirahman Mohamed Mohamud Farole, who was elected on January 8th of this year from a field of over a dozen candidates.
Unlike Somaliland, which has opted to reassert its independence, Puntland’s constitution both supports the notion of a federal Somalia and upholds its own claims to be able to negotiate the terms of union with any eventual national government. A report last month by the International Crisis Group, while expressing concern that the revised constitution unveiled in June would “put Puntland firmly on the path towards secession” from Somalia – as if anyone could be blamed for wanting to flee a burning building – praised the attempt to transform the government into a parliamentary democracy and noted that the document “is mostly strong on human rights, with a good mix of checks and balances to prevent executive abuses and make government more accountable.”
While Puntlanders have their share of difficulties, many of which could be said fairly to be of their own making, engaging the region is nonetheless the condition sine qua non for achieving what should be the international community’s two primary strategic objectives in Somalia: containing (and, eventually, defeating) the radical Islamist threat to regional security and minimizing (and, likewise, gradually suppressing) the menace posed to merchant shipping by Somali pirates.
The authorities in Puntland have, if nothing else, been vigilant in trying to root out religious extremism in their midst, fully aware that the precursor of today’s Islamist insurgents in southern and central Somalia, al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (“the Islamic Union”), had put down strong roots in the region in the 1990s, even seizing the port of Boosaaso at one point. On October 29, 2008, the same day that suicide bombers from al-Shabaab hit the presidential palace, the UN Development Programme office, and the Ethiopian mission in the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa, one of their colleagues, Shirwa Ahmed, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Minneapolis, Minnesota, blew himself up in an attack on the headquarters of the Puntland Intelligence Service in Boosaaso, an act of terrorism that left at half a dozen dead. From the military point of view, the region is a bulwark against the resurgent extremists of al-Shabaab, Hisbul Islam, and other groups in southern Somalia.
There is no denying that Puntland is the center of the Somali piracy problem. The International Crisis Group reports that while state complicity with piracy may have decreased in the last year, “it is an open secret that elements in the police, the security services and government have benefited financially from the practice or felt compelled to turn a blind eye out of filial and clan loyalty,” noting that “without some form of official protection and collusion, [pirate] gangs would find it difficult to operate as efficiently as they do, given the complex logistics involved in planning and executing raids and negotiating ransoms.” The flip side of this is that it is unlikely that, short of military invasion and occupation, there is no way to deny the pirate syndicates the havens they currently enjoy in places like Eyl and Xarardheere without the cooperation of the authorities in Puntland.