September 8, 2006 | World Defense Review

America’s Somali Policy Still Dangerously Adrift

This column is dedicated to the premise that the strategic neglect of Africa was the weak link in the advancement of American foreign policy interests in general, and the successful prosecution of the global war on terrorism in particular. In fact, well ahead of the brief media buzz this past summer, the inaugural column was devoted to warning specifically of the gathering strength of radical Islamist forces amid the ruins of the former Somalia.

Unfortunately, policymakers in the United States are usually institutionally disinclined to take a proactive stance, particularly concerning foreign political and security challenges. After all, as the late Speaker of the House “Tip” O'Neill regularly quipped, “all politics is local.”

Hence, by the time that many Washington-based decision makers came around to appreciating the threat posed by the militiamen of the Islamic Courts in Somalia, it became a matter of too little, too late – at least to achieve anything worthwhile. By America covertly throwing a small bundle of cash at a few armed thugs who never stood a chance of defeating the Islamists, the only thing accomplished was to pour oil on the fires of Somali nationalism, driving even more supporters into the embrace of the radicals.

The result was a fiasco that embarrassed the intelligence and security apparatus responsible for managing U.S. policy in the subregion: not only did it fail to prepare for the eventuality of the radical Islamist resurgence, but then it mishandled the response, exacerbating the situation.

When the Islamist forces seized control of Somalia's sometime capital, Mogadishu, on June 5, establishing the rule of what they called the “Islamic Courts Union” (ICU) the reins of American policy in the Horn of Africa shifted back to the diplomatic side, with the U.S. State Department taking the lead in the hasty formation of an “international contact group” to back the ramshackle, self-appointed “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia, an utter farce that this column has exposed for its lack of legitimacy and the questionable credentials of its principal exponents.

Events in recent weeks have confirmed every one of what some analysts thought were the undeservedly harsh judgments rendered in this column. First more and more of the former Somalia either fell to the forces of the Islamic Courts or quickly allied itself with the ICU regime. Then TFG “President” Abdullahi Yusuf – who, incidentally, never could explain what one does with a ninety-plus-member cabinet in a functional state, much less when one barely has a backwater town for it to preside over – lost his cabinet as ministers resigned and either fled abroad with what they could carry from the overly generous international subsidies to their phantasmal operation or threw themselves at the tender mercies of the Islamists.

It then took TFG “Prime Minister” Ali Mohamed Ghedi weeks to round up 31 warlords and other ne'er-do-wells to be sworn in as the new ministers of a “government” whose writ extended over an ever diminishing territory. Perhaps Messrs. Yusuf and Ghedi would be a little more effective if they weren't busy house hunting: intelligence sources confirm the uncanny chronological coincidence of the withdrawal of several million dollars in foreign aid deposited in the account of the “Somali Republic” in the Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, branch of the National Commercial Bank and the purchase of luxury villas in an exclusive section of Nairobi, Kenya, by the two gentlemen.

While the TFG dissolves, the ICU continues to consolidate its position, not only in Mogadishu, but throughout the territory supposedly governed by the TFG. And, as this column predicted would happen, more radical elements are increasingly come into the fore. For example, one distinct extremist group that has recently emerged within the ICU is Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”), consisting of young men, aged between 20 and 30 years, who fought on the frontlines of the Islamists recent successful military operations.

Led by a kinsman and protégé of ICU council leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, Adan Hashi ‘Ayro, who trained in Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda before returning to Somalia after 9/11, this group appears to be gathering strength in the competition for control of the Somali Islamist movement. In short, while there are tensions within the ICU, the battle might be characterized as a race to the bottom for who can stake out the most radical position.

While there are a few figures within the Union who appear to be more moderate (please note, this is a very relative scale), it is clear that the radicals are ascendant, being better organized and armed thanks to their connections to al-Qaeda and other foreign jihadi groups who, as this column has likewise noted, recently taken a special interest in Africa, viewing it as their next Afghanistan – an analogy that should resonate as we approach the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

All this has led, denials from Addis Ababa notwithstanding, to a small Ethiopian military intervention to prop up the failing TFG which, after all, is led by Abdullahi Yusuf who has been an Ethiopian pawn since the 1970s when he was supported by that country's genocidal Marxist dictator, Mengistu Hailemariam.

While the record of the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, especially with respect to its own internal opposition, is not without its own difficulties, one must acknowledge that Ethiopia does have a significant interest in developments in Somalia.

First, the Ethiopian reaction of Ethiopians to the rise of the ICU is very much conditioned by history and concerns for their own state. Even without referring to more distant histories, one could look to the attacks against Ethiopian officials and territorial sovereignty carried out in the 1990s by Al-Itihaad al-Islamiya (“Islamic Union”), whose vice-chairman and military commander was none other than Sheikh ‘Aweys. There are also very credible reports that fighters from domestic movements opposed to the regime in Addis Ababa have fought alongside the ICU militias in their recent campaigns in Somalia.

Second, the military support that Eritrea provides the Islamists in Mogadishu in blatant defiance of the United Nations arms embargo on Somalia is of great concern for the Ethiopians, who fear that their Eritrean foes are using the Somalis to distract their forces while the bitter border war is reopened. In this context, the Ethiopian reaction, including the apparent dispatch of troops to Baidoa, where the remnants of the TFG have found refuge, is completely understandable. Unfortunately, it is also counterproductive since the presence of Ethiopian troops is just as likely to stir up Somali nationalism and strengthen the cause of the Islamists as the U.S. financing of their warlord opponents earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the cover story in last weekend's edition of The Wall Street Journal describes the small U.S. military presence in the subregion, the Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), as “the centerpiece of [CENTCOM commander General John] Abizaid's long war strategy.” The task force is tasked with military-to-military training and security assistance to governments as well as humanitarian efforts to address the “root causes” of terrorism and “win hearts and minds” for America. All of this is well and fine – and I do not hesitate in saluting the men and women of CJTF-HOF for their service as we certainly would be much worse of in the region without them and the efforts they have made since Camp Le Monier was established in 2001 – but U.S. policy forbids them from entering the former Somalia, including the Republic of Somaliland (which has been described in a previous column), which wants to ally itself to America in the battle against the extremists.

The inability of CJTF-HOA to directly engage Somaliland means, among other things, that it cannot fulfill its mission of terrorist interdiction with respect to 500 kilometers of land frontiers directly opposite the ICU and 900 kilometers of coastline just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, ancestral home of Osama bin Laden as well as more than one hundred of the illegal enemy combatants currently being held at Guantánamo.

U.S. policy with regard to the former Somalia since the tragic Operation Restore Hope can be likened to a vessel on an apparently calm sea whose crew let it drift with the currents only to be rudely be awakened by a storm and to find themselves between Scylla and Charybdis.

In the current case, the former monster was the failed covert attempt at proxy action via third-rate warlords while the latter sucking whirlpool was the pathetic waste of funds by the corrupt and ineffectual latest in the chain of more than a dozen internationally-recognized “governments” of Somalia.

Yet, despite of alarming developments of recent months, the American vessel of state is still dangerously adrift. It is high time that we put an end to the drift and develop a realistic and sustainable policy that can steer us around the shoals of the Horn.

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.