The Somali Model?

The Somali Model?

Mini Teaser: Somalia represents interventionst's perfect storm, but our difficulties there demonstrate the military's limits in the War on Terror.

by Author(s): Jonathan Stevenson

IN EARLY 2002, once primarily American forces had overrun and ejected Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters from Afghanistan, the Pentagon began to extol "the Afghan model"; following the precedent of Operation Enduring Freedom, the idea was that small special operations units would combine with allied indigenous forces (in this case, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance) to acquire local intelligence and a sound operational orientation, guiding U.S. air strikes to maximum effect and setting the table for a relatively easy occupation. The Afghan model thus appeared effective enough in producing a thoroughgoing takedown with minimal casualties and political fallout to warrant institutionalization. Accordingly, the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) and the National Military Strategic Plan for the War on Terrorism (NMSP), both released in early 2006, established Special Operations Forces (SOF) as the United States's principal counter-terrorist instruments, with "an expanded organic ability to locate, tag and track dangerous individuals and other high-value targets globally." Thus, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) became a "supported" as well as a "supporting" combatant command, financially and operationally independent from the regional combatant commands.1

One notable example of the rising prominence of SOF in the United States's regional-security posture is the growth-in both strength and activity-of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) stationed at Camp Lemonier, which serves as the United States's main military outpost in sub-Saharan Africa. When the CJTF-HOA moved its headquarters and personnel from the USS Mount Whitney to Camp Lemonier-an erstwhile French Foreign Legion base now owned by the government of Djibouti-in May 2003, it numbered about 400 soldiers, sailor and marines. As of March 2007, it numbered 1,800 with a facility expansion to come. In theory, CJTF-HOA represents the softer side of American hard power. It is building schools in remote parts of Ethiopia, briefing schoolchildren on disease prevention, drilling wells, constructing hospitals and providing clean water and school supplies. Indeed, one of the most important objectives of counter-terrorism is winning "hearts and minds" to forestall radicalization. But it's still the "kinetic" stuff-capturing and killing terrorists-that draws the world's attention. Last December, the "kinetic" stuff-in the form of Ethiopian troops battling Islamists in Somalia-made headlines.

Somalia's Recent Flip

IN 1991, when strongman Somali President Mohammed Siad Barre was overthrown in a civil war, the competing clans that he had once divided and conquered got hold of weapons supplied first by the Soviets and then by the Americans during the Cold War, and Somalia degenerated into something close to a Hobbesian "state of nature" without central authority. An ineffectual United Nations mission failed to relieve drought and famine, so in December 1992, the United States stepped in to forge a "new world order" by leading a multinational intervention. But the United States antagonized Somali clan militias and eventually precipitated the notorious October 1993 "Black Hawk Down" attack in which 18 U.S. Army Rangers and hundreds of Somalis died. A hurried American withdrawal, rising anti-Americanism and greater purchase for radical Islam in East Africa ensued. Between the 1994 U.S. withdrawal and the September 11 attacks Somalia was only a minor terrorism concern among the major powers. Since 9/11, however, the fear has risen that Al-Qaeda holdouts fleeing Afghanistan would reconstitute their operational base in failed or failing states in sub-Saharan Africa. Somalia remained a leading candidate for jihadi colonization in light of its proximity to the Persian Gulf, its homogeneous 98 percent Sunni-Muslim population and an absence of state enforcement mechanisms.

Somalia has not evolved into the fertile haven for transnational Islamist terrorists that many thought it might become in the wake of Operation Enduring Freedom (unlike western Pakistan). Even Bin Laden, when pondering his next stop after Sudan in 1996, had strong indications from several Al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia that the clans were too untrustworthy and hostile to outsiders to provide reliable security in an otherwise ungoverned country. Furthermore, Somali Islamism-though growing slowly-seemed to be having trouble gaining political traction.

In October 2004, the clan delegates who had been meeting in Kenya over the preceding two years formed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) with UN support. Although several TFG ministers joined a rival quasi-governmental grouping-the so-called Somali Rehabilitation and Redemption Council (SRRC), which in 2005 consolidated under the banner of the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism"-they refused to resign from the cabinet. The TFG also stressed its "anti-terrorist" credentials and TFG President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed's strongly secular mindset. The United States and its partners were reassured that the TFG and the SRRC were both anti-Islamist. In Mogadishu and its vicinity, however, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)-a coalition of eleven Islamic administrations, two of them unambiguously militant, and their respective militias-had brought relative order and safety to several key areas. Despite their traditional inclination towards a moderate and relatively casual version of Islam, increasing numbers of Somalis were willing to submit to sharia law for the sake of greater security. For example, whereas few Somali women wore headscarves before the 1991 civil war, by 2006 most wore them and many were turning towards the full veil, or niqab.

In late 2005, suspected Al-Qaeda operatives surfaced in Somalia. They included Fazul Abdullah Mohammed of the Comoros Islands, probably the most important Al-Qaeda figure in sub-Saharan Africa, believed to have helped organize the 1998 embassy bombings. The appearance of the Al-Qaeda agents prompted the CIA, through its Nairobi station, to actively support the SRRC's efforts to neutralize the ICU. This approach failed miserably. When the SRRC warlords tried to take over Mogadishu, the ICU gathered additional clan support and gained control of the capital in June 2006. Once the ICU held sway, al-Ittihad al-Islami, the small Somali radical Islamist movement led by Hassan Dawer Aweys, threw in its lot with the ICU militias. Al-Ittihad advocates unifying Somalia and the ethnically Somali Ogaden region of Ethiopia-which Somalia unsuccessfully tried to annex in the 1977 Ogaden War-under an Islamic republic. He was appointed leader of a new "Somali Supreme ICU Council", replacing the more moderate Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, who had shown some interest in working with Western powers.

THE TFG, however, remained the internationally recognized government of Somalia. In hopes of eventually taking power in Mogadishu, the TFG kept a temporary headquarters in Baidoa, 150 miles to the northwest. In early December 2006, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted U.S.-sponsored Resolution 1725, authorizing the deployment of an African force in Somalia to protect the TFG. But the resolution barred the participation of neighboring countries under the UN's aegis, and only Uganda firmly offered troops. The ICU's involvement with Ethiopian separatist groups and Islamists encouraged Christian-dominated Ethiopia to fill the security vacuum, sending several thousand troops to reinforce the TFG's increasingly besieged position in Baidoa. The ICU, excited by its success, then went too far. In late December 2006, with up to 2,000 Eritrean troops and probably a few hundred foreign jihadists, they attacked outside Baidoa. TFG and Ethiopian forces pushed them back towards Mogadishu, and the Islamists abandoned Mogadishu when local clans withdrew their support.

Six months after its June miscalculations, the U.S. government eagerly seized the opportunity to regain lost political and physical ground. Some of the Ethiopian troops had been trained by American personnel based at CJTF-HOA. Washington tacitly encouraged the Ethiopians to press their advantage. Within a week the Islamists had dispersed and gone underground. A few small U.S. special operations teams-again, out of CJTF-HOA -joined the TFG and the Ethiopians, who now controlled southern Somalia. Major powers were again confronted with the question of what to do about a country with a 15-plus-year record of failed statehood. The provisional American answer was to continue using the Ethiopians as a proxy for security enforcement in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, some officials promoted Ethiopia's U.S.-backed effort as a model for prosecuting the "long war" on terror.2 However, the TFG's substantial dependence on Ethiopian troops for regime security and Addis Ababa's financial incapability of keeping its soldiers in Somalia-Ethiopia began to withdraw them in February 2007-cast some doubt on the viability of such a model.

The United States had reaped some short-term counter-terrorism benefits from its successful, if ephemeral, proxy incursion. For one, the presence of a friendly government in Somalia-even if the country was presumptively ungovernable-made it politically easier for the United States to take direct kinetic action in Somali territory. The TFG duly gave its consent and, cued by Ethiopian intelligence, U.S. AC-130 gunships and attack helicopters flew out of Camp Lemonier and targeted suspected Al-Qaeda members and fleeing Islamists on successive days early this January and again in early March. But reports of collateral damage reinvigorated Somalis' anger towards the United States-largely suppressed since the mid-1990s.

On January 19, 2007, the African Union (AU) authorized an 8,000-strong African peacekeeping force for Somalia. Uganda offered the bulk of the nine battalions deemed necessary by a fact-finding mission, and Malawi and Nigeria also tendered forces. The largely American intervention in Somalia over a decade ago painfully demonstrated the difficulty of enforcing peace in a politically atomized territory inhabited by a people with a penchant for shifting alliances, a fierce sense of nationalism and a resentment of foreigners generally perceived as meddlers-however well-intentioned. Guerrilla-insurgent activity gathered momentum almost as soon as the TFG tried to assert authority in Mogadishu. In early March, nearly two months after the initial AU authorization, 1,500 Ugandan troops finally arrived and were immediately engaged by guerrilla insurgents with mortar and automatic-weapons fire. The State Department hired the private security company DynCorp International to provide equipment and logistical support to the AU peacekeeping force in Somalia, and committed $14 million to the AU effort and requested another $40 million more from Congress. But even if the full 8,000-strong force can in fact be mustered-a doubtful proposition-and enjoys the most professional and generous support, Somalis' visceral dislike for foreign forces and the wide availability of weapons in Somalia suggest that it would stand little chance of imposing or keeping peace. In the longer term, then, the table seems to be set for yet another reversal of control-this time one that would disfavor U.S. security interests.

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