The Africa Obama Didn’t Visit

President Barack Obama’s trip to Africa did not include Somalia, but the president needn’t go there to see that U.S. policy in Somalia has been an utter disaster. In fact, it would have been impossible for him to get anywhere near Mogadishu, because there is no real government to speak of, not to mention clean water, safe shelter, or even enough hopeful locals to greet him on the tarmac.

The capital city is worse than a ghost town, it is chaos, a space defined by relentless violence and a symbol of every failed attempt to fix it. From the safe distance of Ghana, Obama was able to reiterate the next in a string of ill-conceived attempts to help Somalia. He has already sent more aid and more weapons, about 40 tons in the last six weeks, to the barely functioning Transitional Federal Government (TFG), as well as more guns and "diplomacy" for the invested neighbors – a typical American response, but one so full of folly that it has African specialists all over the political spectrum calling for the brakes.

"The TFG is so weak, it is unlikely these guns are going to end up in the hands of people pursuing U.S. interests anyway," asserts Gerald LeMelle, executive director of Africa Action, in an interview with "It’s just going to result in more and more people being killed."

J. Peter Pham has suggested the administration’s latest scheme is not only futile, but also "potentially dangerous for the interests of America and its allies in the subregion." Pham, an Africa expert and professor at James Madison University, testified before Congress on June 25 that of the few pathetic military recruits the TFG has managed to draw to Mogadishu, "more than 90 percent of those who enlisted have since disappeared with their sign-up bonuses and, more ominously, their weapons, some of which have been documented as ending up in the hands of insurgents to whom they were presumably sold."

The insurgents are al-Shabaab, essentially created by the not-so-realistic schemes of the neoconservatives guiding the last president of the United States, George W. Bush. It was his government, bent on unleashing the Global War on Terror (GWOT) to every dark corner of the earth like a magic and universal recipe, that consigned authority (and, covertly, money) to thuggish warlords (perhaps even those who had a hand in dragging our soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993) in order to topple the growing influence of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).

The ICU was a network of Sharia-based courts that in the late 1990s rose to be the only authentic governing entity in Somalia, known as a kritocracy. By 2006, the ICU had taken over most of the country. The TFG (in its second incarnation by 2004) was as useless then as it is today, and the ICU grew in authority because it was able to provide basic services such as education, healthcare, and above all, security to the war-wracked nation. More importantly, it had legitimacy among large swaths of the Somali population, which is predominantly Muslim.

"They [the ICU] were the first to bring law to Somalia. It was a start," said LeMelle. But they certainly did not jibe with the GWOT. That some of these courts practiced a strict form of Sharia, and worse, included so-called radical clerics not considered friendly to American interests was enough for the U.S. to support the ICU’s enemies among the estranged tribal warlords.

Focusing on the radicals among the ICU Islamists and accusing the ICU of harboring al-Qaeda and fostering a safe haven for terrorists abroad, American policymakers and their surrogates tried to justify their subsequent meddling, leading us straight to the mess today. Critics saw it coming.

“I think the real policy the U.S. should be pursuing is one that seeks to actually install a functioning, stable government there that will more effectively address our effort against terrorists – instead of giving money to people who are essentially criminals,” Eben Kaplan of the Council on Foreign Relations told me in an interview at the time.

“The people who were shooting at U.S. soldiers in the streets of Mogadishu in April 1993 are probably still in the country, and who knows what side they are on,” he added.

After the story broke in the American press that the CIA and/or the U.S. Military’s Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa were funneling resources to a group of three major warlords under the moniker Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, emboldened ICU forces managed to seize the capital in spring 2006.

But as we all know, history tends to repeat itself, and the U.S. is great at betting on the wrong horse. After helping to bring troops from Somalia’s sworn enemy, Ethiopia, into the mess to topple the ICU, the U.S. managed to create an even greater vacuum in Somalia than before. Today, the people are even less supportive of what’s left of the TFG and they loathe the United States (let’s not forget the early 2007 air strikes against alleged al-Qaeda targets in the Somali countryside, which reportedly killed an untold number of civilians).

"Subsequently, the TFG began to collapse – it had no legitimacy," said LeMelle. It should come as no surprise that the U.S., fearing the void, started reaching out to remnants of the ICU then. "What they realized is they jumped the gun, got rid of a moderate government, the whole thing had backfired on them."

That’s for sure. After the ICU was defeated and sent underground, a super hard-line splinter group called al-Shabaab picked up where they left off. They are meaner and more radical than their ICU predecessors. They behead Christians and amputate limbs to repress dissent and keep order. They brag about the assistance they are supposedly getting from terrorists abroad. They threaten to wage war on their neighbors, including Ethiopia and Obama’s father’s homeland of Kenya.

Al-Shabaab has rendered the TFG a living corpse as it consolidates control of Somali territory, from "the southern suburbs of the capital to the border of Kenya," said Pham. "They have proven themselves more resilient than many international observers have been willing to admit." Joined by fellow militant group Hezb al-Islam, al-Shabaab’s recent incursion into Mogadishu has sent some 204,000 Somalis fleeing in all directions. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that some 1.2 million Somalis are now displaced. In the last week alone, some 150 have been killed – 43 since the weekend – despite attempts by the 4,300-strong African Union force, working with the TFG, to beat insurgents back.

"It is difficult to even find the words to describe this horrific situation," said Clare Lockhart, director of the Institute for State Effectiveness. "The humanitarian problems are not to be ignored – the misery on the ground is very, very real."

And who is now ensconced in his presidential quarters, waiting for the inevitable? None other than Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, former head of the ICU and one-time enemy of the United States, now at the mercy of our flawed policy and ill-conceived assistance as head of the TFG. "The U.S. and Europe are now pumping huge amounts of money into the ICU," says LeMelle. "And their area of influence is only a few blocks in Mogadishu."

It is difficult not to shake one’s head in disbelief when the mainstream news media, which typically acts like an addled teenager with a short attention span, attempts to talk authoritatively about the recruitment of Somali-Americans for al-Shabaab or the much sexier topic of Somali piracy on the high seas. Of course there is never any context regarding U.S. policy over the last 20 years, save the obligatory but perfunctory recalling of Black Hawk Down.

But it is a waste of time to itemize so many ironies. Suffice to say that U.S. policy continues to wreak havoc under Obama, the "change agent" whose own heritage is inextricably linked to this East African nightmare but who cannot seem to get out of the doomed foreign policy thinking that continues to misjudge and militarize the situation in scary and damning ways.

"The chance we had to bring some semblance of order is gone," said LeMelle. "Our strategy should be to say ‘we screwed up, we aren’t going to take sides or say guns are the answer.’ You can’t fix failed states at gunpoint. It’s a real disappointment that [our] approach hasn’t changed."

There is a debate, even among those highly critical of U.S. policy in Somalia, about whether the TFG is actually worth saving. Lockhart, who co-authored Fixing Failed States with Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan finance minister now running against President Hamid Karzai as a reform candidate, says with the right aid – including military assistance – the TFG can begin rebuilding its civil institutions and start giving Somalis a reason to believe again.

Others, like LeMelle, say al-Shabaab is more popular than the TFG among the people. The real issue is legitimacy, and neither the TFG nor its defenders in Washington, Ethiopia, Kenya, or beyond have credibility among the Somali people.

"What if the TFG won and managed to push back al-Shabaab? Are they going to be the popularly mandated government of Somalia? Hell no. They have not offered food or shelter, they are not offering security or to give Somalis their neighborhoods back. And so we are in a situation we really have no positive role to play in Somalia and have no popular mandate out there, no legitimacy. We have the classic propped-up government put into place, and we’re hoping everything is going to fall our way," LeMelle said. "But it’s not in the cards; you can tamper with just so many things."

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.