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Muddled on Mogadishu: America’s Confused Somalia Strategy

Muddled on Mogadishu: America’s Confused Somalia Strategy

J.Peter Pham, PhD March 25, 2010

Amid rumors that the otherwise moribund “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia might just bestir itself enough to attempt to break out of the tiny enclave in Mogadishu which Islamists insurgents have kept it and its supporters from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) boxed, there is reason to be concerned that in this geopolitically critical corner of the world, the United States and other governments have substituted wishful thinking for realistic assessment and muddled platitudes for policy objectives, thereby magnifying the potential damage when, as I warned earlier this year, this improvised approach falls apart.

Four points to consider:

First, the virtual entirety of the international community’s Somali strategy – if the hodgepodge of policies can even be dignified with that name – has been predicated on an assumption about Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s accession to the TFG presidency last year that has now been exposed as a false premise. As Bronwyn Bruton succinctly summarized in her recent Council on Foreign Relations Special Report Somalia: A New Approach (which I had the privilege of being a member of the advisory committee for):

In the months immediately following Sheikh Sharif’s election, there was widespread optimism that the TFG would draw radical factions into the peace process – but those hopes rapidly proved illusory. Although Sheikh Sharif has attempted to create an Islamist identity for the TFG by promising to adopt sharia, he has been rejected as a Western proxy by the principal Islamist factions in Somalia. The TFG has also failed to generate a visible constituency of clan or business supporters in Mogadishu. Its survival now depends wholly on the presence of AMISOM forces, which further reinforces the perception that the TFG is a foreign implant.

Readers of this column will not be surprised by this. A fortnight after Sharif Ahmed’s “election” by an ersatz assembly that could not even convene inside Somali territory and which, as the TFG legislature, has not met again for nearly a year for want of a quorum, I warned here that while an unexpectedly turnaround could not be ruled out a priori, it was highly unlikely that anyone – much less someone with as checkered a past as Sharif Ahmed – could prevent the whole transitional framework from unraveling. The fact that, one year after its “makeover,” the TFG still has yet to even establish a mere presence in – much less control over – a majority of Mogadishu’s 16 districts is a sobering reminder of its limitations. As the director of one Somali nongovernmental organization told me last year, “Muhammad the prophet could be in charge and the result would be the same.

Second, the very notion of a unitary national government could succeed given the overall dynamics of the ongoing devolution of Somalia demonstrates nothing so much as the wholesale ignorance of its proponents, both with respect to Somali culture and history and Somali political developments over the last two decades. Events over the course of the last year confirm the trend. As I noted last year, the inhabitants of the northwestern region of Somaliland remains committed to their quest for recognition of the independent state they had before joining with the former Italian colony of Somalia in a 1960 union that they regretted for the ensuing three decades. Elections, expected later this year, will only consolidate this effective schism as all three political parties contesting the polls agree on the independence of Somaliland from the former Somali Democratic Republic. The northeastern region of Puntland was, when I last examined the subject, still committed to being a part of a future federal Somalia, although its people reserved their right to negotiate the precise terms of any union. Since then, despite the fact that a fellow Darood/Harti clansman, Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke, is the designated “prime minister” of the TFG, in recent months Puntlanders have edged closer to formally abandoning the scuttled (and apparently sinking) Somali ship of state. In late December, the regional parliament voted unanimously to adopt a distinctive flag (hitherto the flag of Somalia had been used), coat of arms, and anthem.

All of this means that Somali policies which are wedded to reestablishing a centralized government around the TFG are irrelevant. Consider just the raw demographic data. Of the estimated 9 million Somalis in the world, more than one million of them are refugees or permanently living in the diaspora, about 3 million live in Somaliland, and another 2.4 million in Puntland. Thus TFG and its struggles with the Islamists – whether of the Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen (“Movement of Warrior Youth,” al-Shabaab) or the Hisbul Islam (“Islamic party”) factions—really only affect at most less than one-third of the total Somali population, all of whom live in the southern and central Somalia. This area accounts for about only one-third of the territory of the Somali state before its collapse in 1991.If the United States and the international community are interested in stability in the Horn of Africa – and they should be given the links between Islamists there and those in Yemen, especially al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – then what is needed is something more comprehensive the affirmation made by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson in a special briefing on Somali policy two weeks ago that “U.S. policy in Somalia is guided by our support for the Djibouti peace process,” a process that ignores two-thirds of the relevant geopolitical space and most of its effective authorities.

In point of fact, about the only Somalis who have been interested in signing up for a centralized Somali government are those who have some ulterior motive, usually pecuniary, to gain by the allegiance – which only lasts as long as the relationship continues to be lucrative. Take the case of the deal struck last week by the TFG with some leaders of the Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama’a (roughly, “[Followers of] the Traditions and Consensus [of the Prophet Muhammad]”) militias which have opposed al-Shabaab and its allies in the central regions of Somalia. The ASWJ leadership will “join” the TFG insofar as they get to appoint five ministers, one minister of state, five deputy ministers, 10 directors general, three ambassadors, 12 other diplomats, and the deputy commanders of the army, national police, and security agency. While the deal signing was duly witnessed by the Ethiopian foreign minister, the chairperson of the African Union Commission, and the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general, the accord is not quite what it was spun at. For one thing, while ASWJ has several thousand members, they are – notwithstanding Ethiopian efforts to train them professionally and equip them properly – largely just clansmen mustered on an ad hoc basis, rather than a standing force that could be incorporated into the TFG’s armed forces. For another, the TFG’s ministries are virtual entities, so the political nominations are nothing more than licenses to steal the money that outside donors throw at the regime – recall that two of the “ministers” killed by the December 2009 suicide bombing of the Shamo Hotel in Mogadishu, “Minister of Higher Education” Ibrahim Hassan Adow and “Minister of Education” Ahmed Abdullahi Wayel, held overlapping portfolios which were all the more redundant considering that neither of them actually ran any schools, while two of the “ministers” wounded, “Minister of Tourism” Mohamed Hussein Said and “Minister of Sports” Saleban Olad Roble, hold titles which are almost black humor given the grim reality of Somali life. In fact, the deal has already been repudiated by a number of ASWJ leaders – including its number two, Sheikh Hassan Sheikh Abdi – who apparently weren’t given their due in the division of spoils. Nor will the addition of additional African peacekeepers – according to a report in the U.S. Armed Forces newspaper Star and Stripes, some additional 1,700 Ugandan troops were flown into Mogadishu last week by American contractor DynCorp – alter this dynamic. In fact, even with the reinforcements, it is beyond delusional to think that such a modest contingent of Africans can succeed where the infinitely more robust UNITAF and UNOSOM II forces, with their 37,000 and 28,000 troops respectively, including at one point more than 25,000 U.S. personnel, failed in the 1990s against a less capable foe than the Islamist insurgents opposing the TFG.

Third, even if it was an effective government – and it isn’t (more on this below) – there is little evidence that Sharif Ahmed’s regime is a desirable partner in the least. While professing moderation during his many peregrinations abroad, the TFG head promotes, as The Economist pointed out last year, “a version of sharia law whereby every citizen of Somalia is born a Muslim and anyone who converts to another religion is guilty of apostasy, which is punishable by death.” Contrast this with the situation in Somaliland, a largely democratic, if struggling, polity where Islamic jurisprudence is just one source of legal norms, alongside civil legislation and customary Somali law (xeer), or in Puntland where, notwithstanding its other difficulties, religious extremism is resisted.

Sharif Ahmed does not even have the good manners to keep his noxious ideology at home, but with an almost reckless disregard to the fact that his very continued existence is owed to the good will of the international community, he has chosen to rub America’s nose in it. In November, the TFG appointed Omar Jamal, a Minneapolis Somali advocate, to the post of first secretary at the Permanent Mission of the Somalia at the United Nations in New York. The new job comes just in time for its new incumbent – who has been dubbed “the Al Sharpton of the Twin Cities’ Somali community” – since it includes diplomatic immunity that will likely stay his deportation (a federal jury convicted him in 2005 of lying to immigration officials and he has exhausted his appeals). Then in February, Sheikh Sharif appointed as his “special envoy to the United States of America” one Abukar Abdou Arman, a former president of the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). While Arman regularly posts on the Huffington Post—before his elevation he had floated a proposal there to “offer confidence-building amnesty to key individual players who are on the US terrorist list, as these lists further radicalize people” as well as screeds accusing Israel of being “devoid of any conscience” and comparing Israeli leaders to “Pharaoh and Hitler”—he doesn’t seem to be as concerned about the free speech of those who disagree with him, earning at one point a public rebuke from the Columbus Dispatch for his “effort to suppress the discussion…by labeling it as bigotry and hatemongering.” Lovely. Perhaps those who would hold the TFG capo up as a partner might want to consider what these two nominations say about what he really is.

Fourth, one might even hold one’s nose and engage with an unsavory partner if the latter were at least effective. Alas, “effective” is not a term which can be used alongside the TFG, support to which is more likely to have the reverse consequence from what is intended. In his briefing, Ambassador Carson acknowledged that the United States has “provided limited military support to the Transitional Federal Government.” Other countries, including a number of our European Union allies, have provided training and equipment to the TFG’s forces. Unfortunately, the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia recently delivered a scathing report to the Security Council on all the good that this assistance has been. The UN analysts’ findings are tantamount to an indictment not just of the TFG, but of any policy that relies on that outfit:

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