Abukar Arman examines Somalia’s perilous security crisis and potential future roles for the international community.
“We cannot have our right hand tied in our back and be asked to defend ourselves with our crippled left hand.” – Abdirahman Sheikh Issa
The recent al-Shabaab attack at the heart of the government’s compound, Villa Somalia, marks a turning point; both in terms of the audacity of the group’s militancy and the massive military campaign that the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) and AMISOM are set to unleash.
This may cause a considerable loss to al-Shabaab, especially in terms of territories and hardware, but to count the overtly advertised March campaign as the deadly finale in which these militant extremists would be buried is a quixotic wish, to say the least.
When a security failure of such magnitude occurs, the natural reaction is to ask: how did it happen and who dropped the ball? This type of crisis-inspired scrutiny and discontent often provides an opportunity to institute new policies, improve or overhaul strategies; but, only when natural reactions are not subservient to the politics of exploitation.
With lingering political polarization, damning report by UN Monitoring Group, and seemingly relentless media campaign, any kneejerk reaction to write off the current government—hence any opportunity to salvage the Somali state—is understandable, though not acceptable. Indeed, FGS has made some strategic mistakes and in the process drained much of its political and social capital, but throwing it under the bus, at this critical juncture, is not an option.
FGS has sent a detailed rebuttal to the UN Sanctions Committee chair to illustrate how political the latest UN Monitoring Group charges and their recommendation to re-impose arms embargo on Somalia are; and it is set to dispute the charges before the Security Council on March 6th. One of the most outrageous things done by the Monitoring Group is revealing the clan affiliation of the government officials that they implicated. While it does not matter to the Security Council and UN Sanctions Committee whether implicated government officials were from clan X or Y, such revelation does matter to the Somali audience and could widen inter-clan divide and hostilities.
The Shrinking Nation Syndrome
What do countries such as Somalia, Libya, and Yemen have in common? Aside from being natural-resource-rich and having ample self-destructive elite who are willing to sell their proverbial farms for ego messages and a few pennies, they are three representations of an unfolding saga of bloody and clannish sectarian feuds fueled by hate narratives. They are set to turn their respective countries into chronically dependent para-states that are perpetually hostile toward one another, and are helplessly exposed for exploitation.
It is no secret that there are some domestic, regional and international actors who overtly or covertly facilitate, propel or manufacture the fait accompli in such countries. Security issues cannot be dealt with as though they exist in vacuum.
“I submit that Balkanized, Somalia represents a new and sizable experiment for privatization / globalization and enclave investment in a conveniently self-cleft society. Once this process truly begins, it will likely be irreversible and will signal the beginning of a new trend / policy for weak / failed states. It may create wealth for a few local elites, but will probably be to the detriment of all others,” argues Paul Camacho.
Against that broader backdrop, let me say this: security in Somalia is, for lack of a more accurate description, a self-defeating apparatus of profound complexity. Within that framework, FGS—like the transitional governments before it—is left in a state of profound confusion, uncertainty and helpless dependency.
Everybody’s Business Is Nobody’s Business
In theory, AMISOM has the absolute authority in daytime (macro) security, and armed ghosts control the skies and grounds at night.
Virtually all monies donated to stabilize Somalia go to AMISOM and its multifaceted support security apparatus. Each component of this apparatus enjoys its own lucrative contract. Meanwhile, no serious attempt was made in the past decade to rebuild an adequately paid professional national army with its own barracks and warehouses, though each AMISOM soldier costs at least ten Somali soldiers. And no attempt was made to disarm.
Recently, a tentative bilateral agreement between Somalia and Turkey in which the latter was to help rebuild the Somali army was torpedoed in a number of different ways, including direct protest and pressure from certain influential members of IGAD that caused the previous government to cave in.
On the humanitarian and the development front, Turkey has been an effective outlier within a failed, but still glorified, international aid and development model. Under the latter model, security—like all other things—is outsourced, in-sourced, counter-sourced, and cross-sourced to various forces and political entities with regional and geopolitical interests that are often at odds with one another. These actors, a number of them being international nomadic mercenaries, are all protected behind highly secured camps and enjoy their Green Zone luxuries and, of course, impunities. Almost always, it is the $260 per month, under-trained and under-armed Somali soldiers—like the ones who foiled al-Shabaab’s mosque attack during Friday prayer—who are exposed to the greatest danger.
Against that backdrop, FGS is projected and is generally seen as an incompetent crony serving foreign interests against its own. It is time to streamline security and build an effective command and control.
Ethiopification of AMISOM
Though some beneficiary elites across Somalia might disagree, bringing Ethiopian troops on board as part of AMISOM will likely undermine security in the long-run, create humanitarian disaster, and ruin whatever credibility is left for the African Union troops.
The two years of occupation (2007-09) earned a horrific record that includes indiscriminate massive killing of civilians, use of white phosphorous bombs and human rights abuses that, according to Human Rights Watch, amounts to war crimes. It is hard to comprehend the naïve argument that the same soldiers who looted, raped, and confiscated pots and pans from families already on the verge of starvation are now so morally reformed that they came back to die in order to save Somalia.
Expectedly, some “experts” on Somalia are already making the case for such an argument. They point out the obvious that Ethiopia’s policy is “closely aligned with the aspirations of…Interim Jubba Authority, Puntland and Somaliland” while totally ignoring the fluidity of clan-based allegiance.
In the short foreseeable future, expect an Ethiopian general to take over AMISOM’s field command and for this controversial peace-keeping force to grow obese on Ethiopia’s field-tested Genetically Modified Intelligence. He who has the command of the data designs the strategy.
Status quo is an Off-the-Cliff Option
Contrary to the conventional perception, Somalia is facing an existential threat that is more potent and more extensive than al-Shabaab. That is not to say that we should not worry about al-Shabaab, or, in any way, minimize the ruthless violence emanating from them, their deranged interpretation of Islam, and their campaign to radicalize the youth. At the end of the day, al-Shabaab is an overt threat; as such, it is as widely exposed as the warlords before them.
Despite the current threats, FGS should not be terrorized into submission. The top leadership must not take for granted the last chance afforded to them to save Somalia. Military solutions might seem feasible, but considering the threat at hand and the illusive security dynamic on the ground, it would snow in Mogadishu before that occurs. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the mightiest nation and the mightiest military alliance on earth and billions of dollars in cash, victory could not be secured in Afghanistan and Iraq. The lesson learned is that asymmetric warfare requires tailor-made strategies and willingness to keep the diplomacy and reconciliation doors open.
So, what’s the alternative? Immediately after the end of the upcoming phase, FGS should demonstrate its sincerity and commitment to genuine reconciliation, and appeal to the Security Council to replace AMISOM forces with UN Blue Beret while the reconciliation is taken place. Meanwhile, it should negotiate a bilateral agreement with Turkey to rebuild the Somali National Army. Surely there would be new waves of objections; but, this is a matter of existential importance.
Abukar Arman is a foreign policy analyst and a former diplomat. His work has appeared in a number international media outlets. On Twitter: @4DialogSK. This post originally appeared on Global Policy.