Report: US Should Accept Islamist Authority in Somalia

The United States should accept an "Islamist authority" in Somalia as part of a "constructive disengagement" strategy for the war-torn country, according to a new report released here by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on Wednesday.

The 39-page report urges the U.S. to recognize that "Islamist authority" even if it includes al-Shabaab, or "the youth" in Arabic, an Islamist insurgent group that has declared loyalty to al-Qaeda. 

It calls the current U.S. approach toward Somalia of propping up the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) "counterproductive." Not only is it alienating large sections of the Somali population, but it is effectively polarizing its diverse Muslim community into so-called "moderate" and "extremist" camps, the report says. 

While the report encourages an "inclusive posture" by the U.S. toward local fundamentalists, it suggests the U.S. should show "zero-tolerance" toward transnational actors attempting to exploit Somalia’s conflict", apparently referring to al-Qaeda.

"The Shabaab is an alliance of convenience and its hold over territory is weaker than it appears. Somali fundamentalists — whose ambitions are mostly local — are likely to break ranks with al-Qaeda and other foreign operatives as the utility of cooperation diminishes," says the report, authored by Bronwyn Bruton, a CFR international affairs fellow. "The United States and its allies must encourage these fissures to expand." 

However, David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to neighboring Ethiopia in the 1990s, disagrees that the al-Shabaab leadership will be ready to join any future political arrangement in the country. 

"I think al-Shabaab has become more radicalized and I don’t see any pragmatic leaders in al-Shabaab today. Many in the rank and file maybe pragmatic, the gun-carriers, but they are not the leaders," said Shinn, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Burkina Faso in the late 1980s. 

"I don’t see cracks in the leadership and I don’t see pragmatics in the leadership. A lot of the report is predicated on the idea that it is possible to negotiate with al-Shabaab and I think that’s wishful thinking," he said. 

The report also warns against continued support for the U.N.-backed TFG since it has proven "ineffective and costly." 

"The TFG is unable to improve security, deliver basic services, or move toward an agreement with Somalia’s clans and opposition groups that would provide a stronger basis for governance," the report says. 

The TFG was established in 2004 through U.N. mediation in Kenya in an effort to end the ongoing crisis in Somalia. The TFG moved to Somalia in 2005 but has been unable to make "any progress on state building tasks" due to internal divisions, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) said. 

It was hoped that the installation of Sharif Ahmed, the former head of the Union of Islamic Courts, as president in January 2009 would attract a sufficient number of Islamist leaders to subdue or at least fragment al-Shabaab’s forces. But Shinn says the TFG has become "marginally stronger" in recent months. 

"She [Bruton] seems to begin with the assumption that the TFG is doomed to fail. I am not convinced that it will fail," said Shinn, who was a member of the Advisory Committee to the report. "The fact the TFG under President Ahmed has now existed for more than a year has already surprised many so-called Somali experts. It’s just wrong to make the assumption that it’s going to fail." 

Entitled "Somalia , A New Approach", the report comes at a critical moment in the evolution of U.S. policy toward Somalia . Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are helping the Somali government, which has about 7,000 troops in the capital, plan an impending TFG military offensive aimed at dislodging al-Shabaab fighters from Mogadishu. 

The report details two decades of strife in the Horn of Africa nation, the establishment of the TFG, and its ongoing ensuing power struggle with the al-Shabaab’s movement and its allies. 

Bruton contends that the U.S. policy of providing indirect diplomatic and military support to the weak TFG has only "served to isolate the government, and…to propel cooperation among previously fractured and quarrelsome extremist groups." 

The report calls on the United States to make a final attempt to help the Somali government build public support by drawing in leaders of the other Islamist groups. But it urges the administration of President Barack Obama to consider major policy changes should the TFG fail or continue to be marginalizes to the point of powerlessness. 

The TGF, which is backed by some 5,000 African Union (AU) troops in a U.N.-authorized peacekeeping mission, controls only several blocks of Somalia’s sprawling capital of Mogadishu and the Aden Adde International Airport, while al-Shabaab controls vast swaths of land to the south, and parts of the capital as well. 

Historically, Washington’s interest in the volatile East African nation has been limited to security issues, and most recently to denying sanctuary to al-Qaeda or its affiliates on Somali territory. In recent years, the U.S. has carried out a number of attacks on targets in Somalia believed to be linked to al-Qaeda. 

However, some analysts believe that the U.S. help could easily lead to strengthening the insurgent movement in an already complicated set of circumstances. 

"The administration has decided to move aggressively to support the TFG and is providing training, intelligence, military advice, and hardware to the TFG army in anticipation of a major TFG offensive against al-Shabaab," said David R. Smock, vice president of the United States Institute of Peace’s Center for Mediation and Conflict Resolution. 

"This is a major American gamble which could backfire. The offensive could easily fail, which might lead the U.S. to get even more heavily engaged. We have been burned badly in Somalia before, and we could be burned again," he added. 

In late 1992, the administration of former President George H. W. Bush sent troops to Somalia as part of a U.N.-authorized operation to protect the delivery of humanitarian and food relief to starving communities there. But, in an aborted "nation-building" enterprise, U.S. military forces became increasingly engaged in the ongoing warfare between and among clans that followed the ouster in 1991 of the Siad Barre regime. 

Then-President Bill Clinton began withdrawing U.S. troops after 18 SOF soldiers were killed during a botched helicopter raid against one clan leader in Mogadishu in October, 2003 and completed the withdrawal early in 2004. 

The CFR report also recommends a decentralized development strategy in collaboration with "the informal and traditional authorities" on the ground. It calls for restraining Ethiopia, which has been involved in Somalia’s conflicts for years. 

Bruton suggests that the U.S. should not "own the Somali crisis" and needs to launch a diplomatic campaign to involve European and Middle Eastern countries to support Somalia’s stabilization and address its humanitarian and developments needs. 

A U.N. report on Wednesday alleged that up to half of the food aid delivered by the World Food Program (WFP) to Somalia is being diverted to corrupt contractors, local U.N. workers and Islamist militants in the country. The WFP has rejected the allegations, calling them "unsubstantiated."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Charles Fromm

Charles Fromm writes for Inter Press Service.