January 17, 2007 | World Defense Review

Somalia May Save the War on Terrorism

In my last column in this series, I argued that while “Ethiopia may not have been the ideal intervener in Somalia, better it than no one and perhaps the one thing worse than Ethiopia intervening forcefully is for it to have done so in vain” and that “unless the al-Qaeda-linked [Islamic Courts Union] leadership is utterly and unambiguously defeated?or, in all frankness, better yet, eliminated?they could turn the region between Kismaayo and the Kenyan border, into a terrorist hub that exports the conflict from Somali territory across the subregion.”

Thus, it is gratifying to be able to hail, as I did in an National Review Online op-ed last week, the limited entry into the fight, with air strikes launched last week from a United States Air Force AC-130 gunship and targeted at the three al-Qaeda leaders responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2002 attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya: Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Salih Nabhan, and Abu Taha al-Sudani.

While, contrary to initial reports, the attacks missed their intended targets (other terrorists were, however, killed), it should only be a matter of time before the three – along with the Somali Islamists who have been sheltering them and are now in full flight – are duly dispatched: between the advancing Ethiopian troops who are sweeping everything in their path, Somalia's border with Kenya which has been sealed by the latter country's forces, and the naval blockade of the coast by the guided missile cruisers USS Bunker Hill and USS Anzio and the dock landing ship USS Ashland (soon to be joined by the carrier USS Eisenhower), the militants have nowhere to go. Between the relatively small (and shrinking) theatre of operation and the $5 million bounty we have placed on the fugitives' heads, it is reasonable expect that sooner rather than later actionable intelligence to come which will permit a precision instrument operated by America's Djibouti-based Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa to surgically remove the blot of Messrs. Mohammed, Nabhan, and al-Sudani – and perhaps some of their Somali hosts, like ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys and his kinsman al-Shabaab military commander Adan Hashi ‘Ayro, as well – from the face of the earth.

While this campaign has yet to conclude and, as I suggested in a commentary last week for the online edition of The National Interest, the task of establishing an effective framework for securing and governing Somalia once the current offensive is over and the Ethiopian forces withdraw – which, for a variety of historical, ethno-religious, and political reasons, they must do as soon as responsibly feasible – will be a lengthy one. However, even if the final chapter will not be written for some time, it is nonetheless possible to already draw one significant conclusion: recent developments in Somalia may prove to be salutary reminders which save America's war on terrorism.

First, while they have taken a mauling in recent months by members of America's chattering classes, the broad principles of the Bush Doctrine stand vindicated by the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia. While the military actions by Ethiopia (and the strikes by the U.S. Air Force) were lent formal cover by Somalia's risible “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG), no one takes that body serious as good for anything other than enriching its own members with international handouts. Faced with the extremist enemy with a history of terrorist acts against it setting up a haven that was attracting all manner of foreign militants – among those taken prisoner have been Arabs, Britons, Canadians, Eritreans, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Yemenis, and one apparently very odd Swede – as well as the unwillingness of the international community to deal effectively with the growing threat even as the Islamists aggressively consolidated their rogue proto-state, the government of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi refused to have its hands tied. Rather, it responded decisively with what is essentially preemptive strike and both the Horn of Africa region and the world are better off for this anticipatory action on the part of a sovereign member of the international community “unilaterally” carrying out what the Wall Street Journal eloquently described as an “act of regional hygiene.”

Second, it can only be hoped that the explicit entry of U.S. forces, however slightly, into the fray represents a recognition that terrorists cannot be allowed to escape to fight another day. While the unconfirmed civilian casualties resulting from the AC-130 attack are regrettable, the responsibility lies with the terrorists who take shelter among the population rather than those who pursue them. Even if last week's air strikes missed their primary targets, they serve useful notice to terrorists everywhere that there is no “statute of limitations” on their crimes. Even though nearly a decade has gone by since the East Africa embassy bombings, Messrs. Mohammed, Nabhan, and al-Sudani are still marked men, hunted like the dogs and unable to protect even their closest family members: the wives of the first two were picked up by Kenyan intelligence services last week when the tried to flee into Kenya from the encircled Somali village of Ras Kamboni. It's a very harsh message, but one which ought to be trumpeted to every would-be jihadi who would take up arms against any citizen of the civilized world, much less against the world's remaining superpower. While it may not be politically correct to say so, in the honor-bound societies like those from which these terrorists come, one realistic threat of utter moral humiliation and physical annihilation may have greater deterrent value than a hundred campaigns to “win hearts and minds.”

Third, while neither Ethiopia's increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Kenya's scandal plagued President Mwai Kibaki are going to win any prizes as model democrats, their tacit cooperation these past few weeks with each other as well as with the U.S. has produced an effective counterterrorism campaign beyond anything delivered by America's much-feted “allies” like Afghanistan's pathetic President Hamid Karzai and Iraq's even lamer Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. While Americans may prefer to do business with governments which reflect their own liberal democratic values, the fact is that at all times in international relations and above all in a life-or-death struggle as the fight against the global terrorist threat, policymakers would do well to recall the perennially valid counsel of the late Professor Hans J. Morgenthau:

Statesmen, especially under contemporary conditions, may well make a habit of presenting their foreign policies in terms of their philosophic and political sympathies in order to gain popular support for them. Yet they will distinguish with Lincoln between their ‘official duty,' which is to think and act in terms of the national interest, and their ‘personal wish,' which is to see their own moral values and political principles realized throughout the world. Political realism does not require, nor does it condone, indifference to political ideals and moral principles, but it requires indeed a sharp distinction between the desirable and the possible – between what is desirable everywhere and at all times and what is possible under the concrete circumstances of time and place.

Finally, although the political vacuum created by the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship and the ignominious retreat of the U.S.-led United Nations peacekeeping force in the early 1990s contributed to the rise of the Islamists in Somalia – just like the defeat of the Soviet Union and the disengagement of the international community allowed the Taliban to dominate Afghanistan – it does not follow that the remedy is necessarily the reconstitution of a unitary state, especially when it is neither clear that the interested local parties desire that outcome nor that it would be in the interests of regional stability. As I have repeatedly argued (see, for example, my July 20, 2006, column), the northwestern Republic of Somaliland has not only avoided the maelstrom that has swept the rest of the territory, but is democratic, economically and politically viable, and strategically important – and for all these reasons deserves international recognition.


As for the rest of the former Somali Democratic Republic, it would be far less a threat to outsiders and far more legitimate to its inhabitants if its component parts were allowed to each go their own separate ways rather than have the international community impose an utterly artificial “national authority” on it. (In the case of Somalia, as if further evidence was needed of the TFG's rickety standing, last Friday “President” Abdullahi Yusuf's guard engaged in an RPG battle with rivals which left five people dead while on Monday the government shut down three independent broadcasters who had previously been targeted by the ICU.) Our war against terrorism worldwide might be more effective if we did not consume precious resources defending grandiose alien constructs and instead concentrated the same aid in stabilizing viable, albeit more modest, polities which reflect historical and sociological realities.

The drama of Somalia is far from over as is the engagement in the geopolitically sensitive country which the United States has taken up again after an all-too-long, but ultimately doomed attempt at detachment. Nevertheless, if the simple lessons of the last few weeks – the preemption of threats from growing beyond certain limits, the implacable pursuit of terrorists themselves, tactical alliances with effective partners whose own goals complement our national interests, and a common sense approach the realities on the ground – take, then we can perhaps thank al-Qaeda's Somali friends for helping to refocus our war effort back on the essentials for securing their own eventual doom.

– 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.


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