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As of this week, the United States is directly engaged in Somalia, Ethiopian forces are successfully advancing and Al-Qaeda and Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fighters have been effectively cornered—and yet Somalia still runs a risk of going the way of that most commemorated Black Hawk: down.
The United States and other parties interested in the fate of geopolitically important Somalia must heed the historical and ethno-sociological realities of the country and other lessons of the recent past. In Afghanistan, for example, the cupidity of competing warlords, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the Hamid Karzai government, have led to renewed popularity for the ousted Taliban. That scenario could replay in Somalia, where the internationally feted transitional government—really just a collection of wealth-hoarding warlords—fails to command any meaningful credibility or legitimacy and does not reflect the power dynamics on the ground. And rather than attempting to force Somalia’s historically (and currently) disparate clans and regions into some marriage of international convenience, the fragmentation of Somalia—itself, like Iraq, a modern invention which was only held together by brute force—should be seriously contemplated.
The Ethiopian offensive that the United States is now directly reinforcing has, in three short weeks, routed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had taken control over most of Somalia last year. Thus far the only confirmed U.S. strike was launched Sunday by an Air Force gunship, against what the Pentagon has called “principal al-Qaeda leadership” fleeing with the remnants of the ICU in southern Somalia near the Kenyan border. The military commanders in the area are moving quickly to capitalize on their momentum and finish off the ICU, especially its leadership.
The ICU leadership is now trapped in a triangular area, with: the Kenyan border, which has been sealed by that country’s government, on one side; the coast, which is effectively blockaded by two U.S. guided missile cruisers and a U.S. dock landing ship (soon to be joined by the carrier USS Eisenhower), on another; and the Ethiopian military, which is relentlessly advancing down the Juba Valley as well as the coastline from the port of Kismayo.
Eliminating the terrorists is the first priority and killing or capturing the fugitive Al-Qaeda troika responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2002 attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya would be a significant milestone. What’s more, the fact that Ethiopian troops have killed or captured scores of foreign fighters—including Britons, Canadians, Eritreans, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Yemenis, assorted Arabs and even a Swede—and seized millions of dollars in armaments has demonstrated the considerable threat posed by the ICU radicals’ proto-state and belies the claims by Islamists and their apologists that the group was an anodyne indigenous law-and-order movement.
Beyond rolling back the ICU, the international community must do more than support Somalia’s so-called Transitional Federal Government—which was formed by exiles meeting under international and regional auspices at the Kenyan lakeside resort town of Naivasha in 2004 and is headed by a longtime Ethiopian client (and, before that, a protégé of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Abdillahi Yusuf, once the self-declared “president” of the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland. The “government” was—and is—a motley collection of warlords and clan leaders given to living lavishly on handouts from the international community.
At one point, the “cabinet” of this phantasmal regime boasted more members than any other in the world, with an astounding ninety ministers. Other than providing legal cover for the Ethiopian (and now U.S.) intervention, the transitional government has been of little utility. To illustrate its commitment and patriotism, members of the TFG (those that did not join the ICU when it was ascendant) not only cowered behind Ethiopian protection in the provincial outback of Baidoa throughout the conflict, but their “President” Abdillahi Yusuf failed to summon the courage to enter Mogadishu until nearly two weeks after the Islamists fled. And the fact that masked gunmen appeared on the streets of the capital just one day after “Prime Minister” Ali Mohammed Ghedi returned illustrates not only the fragility of the TFG, but also its uncanny ability to provoke ordinary Somalis to violence—just today, the “presidential” guard engaged in a rocket-propelled grenade battle in downtown Mogadishu with followers of rival warlord which left five people dead—and even to drive them into the embrace of the Islamists.
The international community must not back the TFG unconditionally, which would be tantamount to imposing a regime on the Somali nation—one Somalis clearly have trouble accepting. Fortunately, a model already exists for Somalia, within Somalia.
A Somalian Model for Somalia
After years of brutal repression—which over the decades resulted in the killing of 50,000 people and displacement of another million, out of an estimated population of about three million—the north-western region of Somaliland reclaimed in 1991 the independence it had briefly held before joining in a union with the rest of Somalia. In May 2001, the 3.5 million Somalilanders held a referendum and approved a definitive constitution with an overwhelming 97 percent majority and has reached a number of democratic milestones.
In March 2003, President Dahir Rayale Kahin defeated his closest challenger by a mere 80 votes—a result which the latter accepted after he lost a court challenge. A September 2005 parliamentary election to fill the 82 seats in the House of Representatives concluded with the ruling party winning 33 seats and another two opposition parties winning 28 and 21 seats, respectively—resulting in the almost singular case in sub-Saharan Africa of an executive president who does not enjoy a parliamentary majority.
The region has a bicameral legislature, which balances an elected, legislation-initiating House of Representatives and a conflict-resolving House of Elders (Guurti)—which is vested with traditional authority to consult and mediate in a society where the influence of kinship is still pervasive. The imaginative shape of the legislature, in which various clans enjoy representation, illustrates a compromise between clan-based social patterns and the exigencies of modern administration and democratic governance. The democratic success of Somaliland has won it denunciation by ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys.
The political and social structures of Somaliland could illustrate the basis of a potential way forward for all of Somalia—beyond the counter-terror offensive. But the international community should be wary of forcing Somaliland (and semi-autonomous regions like Puntland) into existing borders for Somalia, lest it undermine an African refuge for democracy and stability. As for the clans and regions within Somalia proper, any transitional administration must respect their legitimate aspirations if it is to eventually hope to bring them together in a national state. In the meantime, Somalia’s grounded realities as well as the security of the Horn of Africa may require its possible fragmentation—a difficult but necessary acknowledgement for the international community to make.
J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James MadisonUniversity.