March 28, 2007 | World Defense Review

Salvaging Security in Somalia

Two weeks ago in this space, I reported that the supporters of Somalia's defeated Islamic Courts Union (ICU) were reconstituting themselves as the “Popular Resistance Movement in the Land of the Two Migrations” (PRM) and beginning to undertake the same insurgency strategy and unconventional tactics which foreign jihadis and Sunni Arab insurgents, often functioning in an at least operational alliance, have employed to deadly effect in Iraq. Developments over the last ten days have proven my analysis of the situation to have been on target:

  • On March 20, as Ugandan troops – the approximately 1,200 Ugandans are the only contingent from the roughly 4,000 personnel pledged to the projected 8,000-strong peacekeeping force to be dubbed the “African Union Mission to Somalia” (AMISOM) – awaited the delivery of much-needed hardware at Mogadishu's main seaport, they were hit by some thirty mortar shells.
  • On March 21, as forces loyal to the “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia, backed by the Ethiopians who had driven the ICU off three months ago, tried to establish control over parts of Mogadishu by disarming militants, fierce fighting broke out and dozens of casualties were reported. The Somali Shabelle news service posted onto its website graphic Black Hawk Down–like photos of the desecrated bodies of fallen troops being dragged through the streets by supporters of the dissident factions. More menacingly, leaders of the Hawiye clan, which predominates in the sometime Somali capital, issued a press statement encouraging their fighters to resist – which they do quite effectively, setting up roadblocks throughout the city.
  • By March 22, as a steady stream of families continue to flee the city for the relative safety of the countryside (an estimated 40,000 have left since the beginning of the month), fights were raging in both the northern and southern quarters of Mogadishu. Many of the refugees are forced to walk as far as 30 kilometers because the price of motorized transportation tripled in less than twenty-four hours. Meanwhile, later that same day, fighting also erupted in Galgadud, some 500 kilometers north of Mogadishu between TFG forces and local clansmen.
  • As the fighting continues, Major General Levi Karuhanga, the commander of the Ugandan AMISOM “peacekeepers,” issued a plaintive appeal for reinforcements, but his plea has not been answered. Rather, his boss, Ugandan Minister of State for Defense Ruth Nankabirwa, pledged not to risk the lives of her country's soldiers by allowing their deployment outside of Mogadishu.
  • On March 23, apparently giving up their efforts to disarm the Mogadishu militias, Ethiopian commanders agreed to a truce with Hawiye clan elders. The Ethiopians will refrain from any further efforts to disarm the clan's fighters and will be confined to their barracks until they can withdraw. In exchange, the Hawiye will permit the Ethiopians to leave unmolested. (At the time of this writing, reports are that the ceasefire is holding in some quarters, but fraying dangerously in others.)
  • That same day, a Russian-built, Belarusian-operated Ilyushin-76 cargo plane taking off from the Mogadishu airport was targeted by as many as three ground-to-air rockets. One of the missiles found its mark, bringing down the aircraft and its eleven passengers, all of whom were reported to be foreign nationals. Once again, photos of clearly non-Somali bodies being dragged about circulated. While these events are more immediately indicative of a widespread local disaffection with the TFG and its international backers, evidence has emerged that foreign elements have not been slow to exploit the situation. In a 30-minute video posted to the internet last Sunday by al-Qaeda's al-Sahab media unit, a Libyan al-Qaeda leader who with three others made a daring escape from the U.S. prison for terrorists at the Bagram airbase north of Kabul in 2005, Mohammed Hassan (a.k.a. Abu Yahya al-Libi), addressed himself to the Somali militants and offered both tactical and strategic advice:

    My patient brother Mujahideen in Somalia…you have to stick to the gang wars, because it is the longest of battles and … most suitable for small numbers and vulnerable fighters. Slam them with one raid after another, set ambushes against them, and shake their soil with land mines and shake their bases with suicide attacks and car bombs. The goal of your fight and the purpose of your jihad is the expulsion of the occupier and his helpers and the establishment of an Islamic state in the land of Somalia.

    To spearhead this fight, according to a report in The Times, al-Qaeda had last week formally designated a Somali Islamist military commander Adan Hashi 'Ayro, who trained in Afghanistan before 9/11 and is close to the fugitive chairman of the ICU's council, Sheikh Hassan Dahir 'Aweys, as the head of its operations in Somalia. ('Aweys himself phoned into the BBC last week just hours after the bodies of the fallen Ethiopian and TFG soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu to praise the deeds of the “resistance” and promise that the Islamists would be back, riding the wave of anti-foreign sentiment.)


    The response of the international community to these troubling developments has been underwhelming. On March 24, the members of the United Nations Security Council dispatched South African Ambassador Dumisani S. Kumalo, current holder of the rotating presidency, out to read a press statement “to express their concern about the resumption of violence in Somalia” and “to stress the need to desist from further acts of violence, adhere to international humanitarian law, and afford unimpeded access for relief workers.” Of course, while reiterating the world organization's support for both the TFG and AMISOM, the statement did not pretend to address the concern I first expressed three months ago that “even if U.S. and European envoys manage to cajole other countries into contributing the rest of the 8,000 peacekeepers to take the place of the withdrawing Ethiopian intervention force, 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 personnel respectively, failed barely a decade ago.”

    The way forward is not to be found by mindlessly repeating mantras about dialogue aimed at shoring up a “transitional government” that has done precious little governing since it was established nearly three years ago or by cheerleading for a peacekeeping force that – the brave little Ugandan contingent aside – does not exist, even on paper, four months after the UN Security Council authorized its creation. Rather, what is needed is the clarity of vision and the political courage to squarely face the facts on the ground and come to the following realizations:

  • The recent escalation in violence cannot be interpreted other than as the wholesale rejection by Somali clans of the TFG as well as any foreign forces which are viewed as shoring up the that pretender government. The danger is that, since Somalia's homegrown Islamists were defeated but not eliminated as I called for in January while the Ethiopian campaign was in progress, the clansmen will align themselves with the ICU/PRM much like the Pashtun tribes backed and, in many cases, continue to back the Taliban in Afghanistan. Stop wasting time, money, political capital, and, now, lives on the TFG.


  • There is no hope of outsiders being able to reconstitute a unitary Somali state. Somalilanders – roughly half of whom have been born after the northwestern republic reclaimed its sovereignty upon the collapse of the Somali Democratic Republic in 1991 and have never even known themselves as Somalis – will never agree to turn back the clock and reenter into a union with the rest of the country. The inhabitants of the semi-autonomous northeastern region of Puntland which, while not as politically advanced as the Republic of Somaliland, is nonetheless making significant progress on its own, are likewise unlikely to want to chain themselves to the anarchic rest of the former state. As for the other Somali regions, their clans show little inclination to surrender their traditional freedoms, reasserted in the decade and a half since the collapse of the Siyad Barre dictatorship, to a new central regime. Consequently, short of employing overwhelming brutal force – and, even then, the odds of success are not good – there is little likelihood that Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again.


  • Given that the international community is both unlikely to use force to compel unity and unwilling to support extensive nation-building efforts, its primary strategic objective must therefore be to prevent both outside actors from exploiting the vacuum left by the de facto extinction of the entity formerly known as Somalia and those inside the onetime state from spreading their insecurity throughout a geopolitically sensitive region. On a secondary level the international community might also be interested in facilitating progress inside the failed state; however the outsiders' chief interests will be allocating their scarce resources where they can achieve some effect. Consequently, it follows from these premises that the only way to salvage something out of the wreckage of Somalia – and the international community's Somalia policy – will be to adopt something like the following steps:

    First, formally acknowledge de jure what is already de facto: the desuetude of “Somalia” as a sovereign subject of international law. Unitary Somalia is not only dead, but the carcass of that state has been putrefied; reanimation is no longer in the realm of possible. This description of reality does not mean that the former state's territory necessarily reverts back to terra nullius that is up for grabs – as if any rational, responsible state actor would want the quagmire – but rather that it would be a quarantined area under broadly-defined international surveillance to prevent outsiders from exploiting the lack of a central government.

    Second, while encouraging Somalis to pursue peaceful dialogue among themselves, establish formal benchmarks for responsible governance within the former Somalia against which the regions or clans or whatever entities the Somali people themselves choose to organize for themselves will be measured. As these proto-states advance along that continuum of political maturity, they can gain progressive international recognition with the access which that would confer – for example, “interim special status” as a quasi-state entity within multilateral political and economic forums – as well as increasing amounts of assistance by way of incentive. Somaliland would, in my estimation, be well along the right side of this curve and would be ready soon – if it is not already – for international recognition; other Somali regions may take longer.

    Third, redefine the role of the African “peacekeepers” to keeping the peace along Somalia's borders with other countries in the subregion, rather than trying to use this force to assert the questionable claims to authority by a clearly unpopular “government” like the TFG. The addition of naval and air components to the AMISOM ground force would bolster its capacity prevent foreign non-state actors such as al-Qaeda as well as state sponsors of terrorism or other spoiler states from supporting Islamist and other insurgents within Somalia.

    Fourth, recognize that occasionally forces like the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) based in nearby Djibouti or the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Arabian Sea will have to take preemptive action to prevent terrorists from gaining a foothold in Somalia when the nascent forces of order within Somalia and the AMISOM peacekeepers redeployed to guarding the perimeter may prove themselves unwilling or simply unable to do so.

    While a policy like the one I have outlined may strike many as minimalist, to date the international community has shown little inclination to do much more than proffer empty words. Furthermore, my approach buys Somalis themselves the space within which to make their own determinations about their future while at the same time allowing the rest of the world, especially the countries of the Horn of Africa, to realize most of security objectives. In short, this strategy has offers the most realistic hope of salvaging a modicum of regional stability and international security out of an increasingly intractable situation.

    – 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.