Since the ill-fated Operation Restore Hope ended in debacle in 1993, America’s involvement in Somalia entered into a deep recession from which it did not emerge for a decade and half. Following the killings of 18 US rangers by Somali militia, the Americans, whose initial mandate was humanitarian rather than peace-making, perceived the Somalis as ungrateful and undeserving of their support and decided to leave. And they did that abruptly. An American diplomat, referring to their withdrawal from Somalia in 1993-4 was reported as saying “we decided to leave the warring Somali clans to finish each other off and they certainly did that”. In retrospect, however, the US decision abandon Somalia, after spending billions of dollars and losing some of its finest soldiers, was a historic strategic and diplomatic misstep. During this recession of interest in Somalia, the US refused to play any role in Somali affairs or support the outcome of a number of reconciliation conferences sponsored by the UN, including the one held in Djibouti in 2000.
The US reviewed its policy of disengagement following the terrorist attacks of September 11 and those at the American Embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania in 1998, allegedly carried out by Somali based terrorist elements. For a long time, the intelligence community warned that, due to the political anarchy, poverty and its proximity to the jihadist producing Middle East, Somalia is fast becoming a breeding ground for Al-Qaeda allied terrorist groups. In this context, the US re-engaged in Somali politics belatedly and found it lot more complicated and lot more dangerous than Aidid’s Somalia from whose marginalized and very weak militia the Americans inexplicably ran away.
Although the US decided to pay closer attention to political events in Somalia, their renewed interest there was informed by Bush’s “war on terror” policy that avoided dealing with the deeper questions of conflict resolution, development and governance, and focused primarily on targeting terrorist groups, a strange move given the correlation between terrorism and anarchy. Elements of this policy included supporting Ethiopian incursions into Somalia in the hope that the Ethiopians will be able to keep the jihadist genie in the Somali bottle or defeat it altogether. It also included hunting and killing terrorist group leaders whenever possible and monitoring the general situation. The US also offered limited support to the Kenyan sponsored reconciliation conference which resulted in the formation of a Transitional Federal Government. Bush’s hit and run policy has failed to achieve its objectives of containing the spread of jihadist groups and capturing or killing leading terrorist figures. In fact, it has the opposite effect.
The Obama administration, which promised a departure from Bush’s unilateralist band-aid policy in Somalia, has surprised everyone by announcing a new approach it termed as “Dual Track Policy”. Frustrated by the inability of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government to restore security in the country or contain the spread of Islamist groups, the US appears to have given up on the idea of supporting Somali government as a means to combat terrorism and restore stability in that region. In essence, the new policy aims at bypassing the ineffective infighting paralyzed TFG and encourages to establish direct diplomatic contact with other Somali “entities” such as regional states and anti-Al-Shabab religious groups. It is presented as a pragmatic approach that takes into consideration the realities on the ground in Somalia. However, the new policy raises more questions than it answers.
If implemented as proposed, the so called dual track policy will give the Somali conflict a fresh start, a re-run of the tribal wars that have been going on in Somalia for the last two decades, this time with jihadists in the mix. One only needs to look at the history of Somali conflict to place the new policy in proper context and assess its potential impact. The two relatively stable regional states, Puntland and Somaliland, which stand to benefit most from the new policy, have something in common. Both of them were established by tribal rebel groups which were instrumental in destroying the last central government of Somalia.
In the case of Somaliland, the current president, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, was the founder of the Ethiopia backed Somali National Movement (SNM), an armed opposition group that waged war against the Somali government for years until it finally succeeded to overthrow it with the help of other groups. Somaliland is often heaped praise by the international community for maintaining peace, law and order in their part of Somalia and even holding democratic elections, however rudimentary. That may be true and credit must be given where it is due. However, when Somaliland is placed in the greater context of Somali conflict, it becomes clear that it played a major role in creating the Somali conflict in first place and it continues to play a huge role in sustaining the Somali civil strife because of its claims of secession as well as its refusal to get involved in the peace process. In the eyes of other Somalis, Somaliland is a single clan state, attempting to dictate its wishes to other clans in Somaliland. Other clans in Somaliland such as the Gedobursi, Dulbahante and Warsangeli are vehemently opposed to Somaliland’s secession for the fact that this is not a viable project, unless the UK returns to colonize it, and for fear that they may become permanent political underdogs in Somaliland. When one digs a little deeper, therefore, one realizes that the elephant in the house of Somali conflict is Somaliland. The perception that Somaliland has nothing to do with the war in Somalia is a complete misunderstanding of the conflict there.
Puntland, another single clan entity, is also a whitewash of SSDF, the first Somali opposition group to take arms against the late President Mohamed Siad Barre’s military government. By forming a clan-based armed opposition group, the SSDF reversed the detribalizing policies of Siad Barre’s military regime and sowed the seeds of civil war and political discord in Somalia. SSDF was founded by Col. Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, former president of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government who also served as the first president of Puntland. Mr. Ahmed recently acknowledged that he had made a mistake when he took arms against the Somali government and lamented his role in the disintegration of Somalia. Currently Puntland is also locked in an intra-clan conflict that threatens the very existence of the state and the heavy-handed approach of the leadership there made matters even worse.
The dual track policy is also music to the ears of Al-Shabab and other affiliated jihadists who know that they will be able to easily spin this policy as a new balkanization of Somalia, a self-fulfilling prophesy of their grand conspiracy of the west against Somali people. Al-Shabab’s propaganda machine is already presenting the new policy as something they have already known would happen. These Jihadist groups have always tapped into the resentment and despair brought about by the emergence of tribal entities and secessionist fanatics. It is not difficult for them to portray these developments as the work of Somali enemies. Such a message strongly resonates with many Somalis, particularly those who do not identify themselves with clans in these regional states. The new dual track policy is going to help Al-shabab and their allies continue their unholy holy war, providing them with new propaganda ammunition to mobilize youth.
The current dual track policy is reminiscent of another dual track US boondoggle in Somalia. In 2006, American diplomats in Nairobi, while publically declaring their support for the TFG of Somalia, handed cash-filled suite-cases to several anti-TFG Mogadishu warlords and asked them to flash out Islamist groups from the city. The rest is history. Few weeks later, one after the other, the warlords, vilified by the jihadist propaganda as enemy mercenaries and unable to withstand popular uprising against their secret deal with the CIA, handed over their weapons to Islamist groups and headed for Nairobi, with their newly won lottery money in their SUVs.
And now we have what is clearly a “tribal track” policy that encourages every Somali clan to establish their own administration so that it will be eligible to put their hands in the American candy jar to be distributed to these X lands. And to what end? How many US experts does it take to change a light-bulb in Somalia? Whoever is advising the US government on their Somali policy formulation, it appears to be listening to too many of them!. The new policy is potentially dangerous for the political stability of the Horn of Africa region, particularly Somalia’s neighboring countries; Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. Creating multiple clan states simply adds to the political insanity there. In my opinion, the best track to addressing Somalia’s political quagmire and remove the terrorist menace is to support the TFG and the African Union’s peace-making approach.
Providing development aid to regional states and other peaceful areas is a long over-due step, however, this development assistance should be delivered in ways that strengthens the Transitional Federal government rather than making it irrelevant. Carrying out the dual track policy opens up the Pandora box of dealing with multiple clan “entities!” and sets the stage for an easy and quick Al-Shabab expansion. Somaliland and Puntland must work with the FTG and the international community to put the Somali puzzle pieces together. And doing so serves their own interests and ensures their own existence.
Mohamud Dere Hersi (Indheergarad)
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