July 12, 2006 | World Defense Review

Dangerous Fiction: A Tale of Two Cities, Part I

Like Cassandra after Agamemnon's Greeks emerged from the Trojan Horse, I have had little time to derive any satisfaction from being justified in my longstanding warnings about the risks to international security centered in the Horn of Africa: Threats from radical Islamist groups the ignoring of which, in another moment under the inspiration of the Homeric muse, I called America's Achilles' heel. There have been simply been too many other battles to fight.

Even after the capture at the beginning of June of Somalia's sometime-capital, Mogadishu, by armed forces of the so-called “Union of Islamic Courts,” some continued to deny the strategic significance of the event. At the joint hearing of the Subcommittees on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations and International Terrorism and Nonproliferation at the end of June at which I testified, one witness questioned whether the Somali Islamists were extremists, while another tried to deny the link between them and the radical currents of the global jihadi movement.

Fortuitously, the Fates may have been smiling, delivering definitive ripostes to my two colleagues for Independence Day. As Americans were watching the fireworks, Islamist militiamen in Mogadishu shot two people dead as the new regime shut down a cinema showing satellite television coverage of the World Cup (even the Taliban allowed people to watch soccer, even if cheers were limited to cries of “Allahu akbar!“). At almost the same moment, the Associated Press in Nairobi obtained an hour-long recruiting video issued by the Somali Islamists which clearly showed Arab radicals fighting alongside the local extremists and invited foreign fighters and contributions for “the sacred, holy jihad in Somalia” and “the holy war that began in Somalia” (the latter a reference to Osama bin Laden's old claim that al-Qaeda's first victory against America was won in the Mogadishu street battle chronicled in Black Hawk Down).

So how is America reacting to a situation that is looking a lot like Afghanistan as the Taliban were settling in (or, as Yogi Berra put it, “déjà-vu all over again”)? Unfortunately, even if one grants there were other international security concerns last week – including the Fourth of July test firing of missiles by North Korea's “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-Il – the U.S. response has been disappointingly weak: last Friday the U.S. participated in the second meeting of the hastily-convened International Somalia Contact Group consisting of representatives of the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union, the U.S., Sweden, Norway, Italy, Tanzania, and a few others (the first meeting only took place on June 15).

Given the dynamics of this multilateral approach, if the Contact Group does anything at all, it's likely as not to adhere to what legal scholars call the fictio juris, that is, the “fiction of law,” so beloved of diplomats, multilateralists, and other denizens of the transnational set. Unfortunately, in the global war on terrorism, fictions, legal or otherwise, can be lethal. And the case of Somalia bears this out. This morality tale might be called “A Tale of Two Cities” after the two towns involved, Baidoa and Hargeysa.

For nearly two years now, the international community has engaged in game of make-believe by recognizing the now-Baidoa-based “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) headed by a failed warlord named Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad as the government of all that was once the Somali Democratic Republic. After the collapse in early 1991 of the Siad Barre dictatorship – and with it the Somali state – Abdullahi, a onetime protégé of Libya's Mu'ammar Qaddafi and Ethiopia's Marxist tyrant Mengistu Hailemariam (now deposed and living as a guest of Zimbabwe's equally lovable Robert Mugabe), tried to set himself as the warlord-ruler of a statelet known as “Puntland.” When that enterprise came to naught, he joined the queue of other wannabes who hived themselves off to a Kenyan resort on the shores of Lake Naivasha where in 2004 the well-intentioned international community was trying to conjure up yet another government for Somalia after the ignominious collapse the previous year of its previous attempt, the farcical “Transitional National Government” (TNG). At this confab, armed with a bag of cash provided by Yemen's President Ali Abdallah Salih (whose son is a business partner of Abdullahi's), Abdullahi emerged as the president of the TFG, while the runners-up were offered other positions, including seats in the 90-member (!) cabinet or 275-seat “Transitional Federal Assembly.”

Of course, none of the members of this self-selecting crowd had much of a constituency back in Somalia or – as evidenced by the inability of the long-suffering Kenyan government to get the TFG caravan moving until the middle of 2005 – any great desire to go back to the country they were ostensibly appointed to govern. Eventually, the Kenyans managed to evict the TFG – the story of how they succeeded would give reality television a run for its money – but the international community had little success imposing the TFG's writ on the Somali people. “President” Abdullahi has never entered his capital as “head of state” and such members of his “government” as have remained with him have swatted it out in Baidoa, a provincial town in south-central Somalia, ever since the Kenyans turned them out. When it meets, for example, the “Federal Assembly,” convenes in a grain warehouse, although the presiding officer is careful not to take roll calls for quorum.

While Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer insists like the trooper that she is that the TFG represents “a framework for progress that the Somali people support” and “a legitimate and viable roadmap for rebuilding legitimate and effective governance in Somalia,” there is little evidence to back up either claim. Under questioning by members of Congress, Dr. Frazier was frank enough to admit that the TFG can't even claim to actually control the entire town of Baidoa – a point tragically underscored last week when three people were killed and four wounded when a firefight erupted around a UN World Food Program convoy in territory nominally controlled by the Abdullahi “government.”

In an provocative essay in the current issue of The Nation Interest entitled “In Praise of Warlords,” John Hulsman of the Heritage Foundation and Alexis Debat of George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute argue that stability is the key to successful interventions abroad and that “it is imperative to work with local elites – and this includes the warlords – to ensure the stability that is so vital to any state-building enterprise.” It's hard to argue with this realist advice, but applying it to Somalia would require that the State Department reverse course. The devil, as usual, is in the details. Hulsman and Debat have a very specific idea of what they mean by the “warlord” which they would counsel us working with:

A “warlord” is a leader whose power has been attained by non-democratic means but who exercises authority usually on the basis of an appeal to ethnic or religious identity, and who usually controls a definable territory where he has a near monopoly on the use of force. A warlord, as opposed to a gang leader or petty crook, operates within a clear and defined political framework.

By this standard, in the TFG we have at best a gang led by a crook who is certainly not a warlord worthy of that exalted titled as defined by Hulsman and Debat. To be fair, while he may not be much of a statesman, Abdullahi is a clever hustler: even as he has no doubt figured a way to profit from the TFG's newfound international support, he continues to earn a nice return from his stake in Mudan Airlines, which makes twice weekly runs between Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Bosaaso, Somalia, ferrying in, among others, would-be jihadis responding to the promotional video of the Mogadishu Islamists. All in all, not a bad racket: make money flying in extremists and then collect international support to shore yourself up against the same radicals.

In diplomacy, it's one thing to work with the powers that be – one might even say that it is the essence of statecraft. Legal fictions exist, if for nothing else, to lend “social respectability” in terms of international society to the sometimes necessary bargains which civilized nations must strike with devils having little or no provenance. However, one trick that fictiones juris cannot perform, however, is to create reality. As the maxim of Roman law has it: Fictio cedit veritati, fictio juris non est ubi veritas (“Fiction yields to truth: where there is truth, the fiction of law does not exist”). For the sake of U.S. interests and security, as well as that of the Somali people, one certainly hope there is more to America's counterterrorism strategy in the Horn of Africa than making believe along with an ad hoc group of international partners that a gaggle of ne'er-do-wells holed up in an abandoned grain warehouse in a outback like Baidoa actually governs a Texas-sized country – much less that it is our first line of resistance to the well-armed forces of the Islamist extremists in Mogadishu, radicals who have now shown themselves to be clearly linked to global jihadi networks.

to Part II


J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.