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Somalia: The Center Cannot Hold
“Western nations should recognize and support existing institutions in Somalia to halt the advance of al-Shabaab within the country”
“The first step is to acknowledge Somaliland's independence”
Seth Andre Myers
The convergence last week of Secretary Clinton's trip to East Africa and the arrest in Australia of four men with links to the Somali al-Shabaab movement on terrorism charges serves to highlight al-Shabaab's emergence as an extremist threat. While Secretary Clinton's support of the Somali Transitional Government may delay al-Shabaab's rise, 18 years of failed statehood suggest that it is time for the United States and its allies to fundamentally reassess their policy towards Somalia.
Instead of focusing exclusively on the powerless transitional government, Western nations should recognize and support existing institutions in Somalia to halt the advance of al-Shabaab within the country, and engage Somalia's neighbors in a productive regional strategy.
An underlying problem with the West's approach to Somalia for the past 18 years has been that it is thinking inside of a nonexistent box -- Somalia as it is represented on the map is no longer a viable entity, having instead fractured into three separate statelets representing the full spectrum of stability.
In the northwest of the country, Somaliland long ago declared its independence. Somaliland has a unique history from the rest of the country, its own government, its own currency, its own armed forces, and is actually one of the safer areas in the region. Continuing to approach it in the same manner as Mogadishu is neither useful nor realistic. Likewise, the northeastern region of Somalia, Puntland, is autonomous from Mogadishu, features a functioning but extremely weak government, and possesses a very small state militia. The south of Somalia is an anarchic mess, where al-Shabaab and the transitional government volley for control of the capital, with al-Shabaab firmly entrenched in the far south.
The first step is to acknowledge Somaliland's independence, and to work with both it and the Puntland government to strengthen their respective militaries and institutions. Already there has been a de facto recognition of Puntland's autonomy through cooperation with Western navies in combating piracy; it is time to expand that relationship. Bolstering the Puntland government as a counterforce to al-Shabaab is of particular importance. The Puntland government has historically been antagonistic towards Islamist movements, with its militias having fought the Islamic Courts Union and al-Itihaad when both strayed too close to Puntland. Moreover, Puntland exists in an extremely important strategic position, situated on the Gulf of Aden. It is thus imperative that Puntland not fall to al-Shabaab. It is from Puntland that the vast majority of pirate attacks have been launched. While these attacks have been problematic, an extremist group such as al-Shabaab controlling a vital international waterway would be nothing short of catastrophic.
Working with Somaliland will probably entail recognizing its independence, which will strain relations with the transitional government. It should be done nonetheless. Supporting the Puntland government should be less controversial; Puntland has declared autonomy rather than independence, and has repeatedly expressed interest in rejoining a functioning Somali state in the future. In the meantime, the West should accept that the transitional government barely exists as an institution -- it does not even have control of its own capital. Where functioning institutions exist, it is imperative to bolster them, given the severity of the failure of the Somali state.
Secondly, the United States and its allies should seek to engage regional powers in a constructive framework aimed at preventing any further proxy-ization of the conflict in Somalia. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, Eritrea -- its arch-rival -- began arming Islamist militias in an attempt to bleed the Ethiopian army. This type of behavior needs to stop. Secretary Clinton's severe warning to Eritrea is an excellent beginning. Ultimately, Eritrea may be further enticed to disengage if such action is linked to a rehabilitation of ties with the African Union. Likewise, while Ethiopia is rightly worried about violent extremism in its Ogaden originating from Somalia, the habit of Ethiopian troops to inappropriately appear on the wrong side of the border is only further destabilizing the situation. (Indeed, it was from Ethiopia's 2006 invasion of Somalia that al-Shabaab emerged.) The United States and its allies should also help Kenya -- the most obvious target of a terrorist attack in the region -- to strengthen its security on the Somali border, as well as its anti-terrorism capabilities.
An important aspect of this regional approach will be to attempt to reduce access to Shabaab-controlled areas -- as the Australian case illustrates, the current threat lies more in the movement of foreign individuals into and out of Shabaab territory than in the group itself. Likewise, bolstering humanitarian aid will necessarily be a part of a regional approach, given the severity of suffering in Somalia.
Somalia as we know it has failed; it is time to recognize that reality and move on. It is a geographic, political, and humanitarian catastrophe, and has been one for close to two decades. The south in particular is awash with guns, short on food, and now home to an entire generation unfamiliar with the concept of governance. Where functioning institutions exist, they should be bolstered. Where instability reigns, humanitarian suffering should be minimized. And where extremism flourishes, it should be contained.
Seth Andre Myers is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
Source: World Politics Review, August 13, 2009