Sunday, August 1, 2010

Save Somalia, Let Al-Shabaab Win?

That’s the outside-the-box proposal writer Daniel Howden put forward in the UK’s Independent on Friday. Al-Shabaab (who we have discussed in numerous posts here) is the main Islamist group opposing Somalia’s internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG), the body that is supposed to return Somalia to functioning country status. But the TFG is doing a generally lousy job of it, fighting more amongst themselves than with al-Shabaab, other Islamic militias or the Somali pirates. The TFG is backed by the international community, much of what military power they have comes from 6,000 or so African Union peacekeepers, the majority of whom are from Uganda. Al-Shabaab apparently took notice of this a few weeks ago, conducting suicide bombings in Uganda that killed more than 70 people. The predictable knee-jerk reaction has been for Uganda to commit to send more troops into Somalia to take on al-Shabaab.

But Howden argues that this is exactly the wrong thing to do. Instead the world community should pull back on their support for the TFG and let al-Shabaab take over the country. His rationale is a two-part one: despite years of support, the TFG has been petty and ineffective, there’s no reason to think they will change anytime in the future; while on the other hand if al-Shabaab were to win control of Somalia, the group would likely quickly fall apart due to their own internal infighting.

It’s an interesting suggestion to say the least. On one hand, I agree with his assessment of the TFG, where there is a situation disturbingly similar to the one we have with the Karzai government in Afghanistan – that government also has been, and continues to be, hopelessly corrupt and incompetent, yet the US/NATO/etc. coalition is stuck with them, a factor that goes a long way towards making Afghanistan a no-win situation. But you have to ask, if we follow Howden’s advice, what happens if al-Shabaab doesn’t collapse? The group has pledged its allegiance to that global terror umbrella group, al-Qaeda; and thanks to the Uganda attacks, al-Shabaab has demonstrated their ability to stage terror attacks outside of their borders. So, would this just amount to creating a terrorist safe haven along the Horn of Africa, one that would be able to wreak havoc across much of the eastern part of the continent? On the other hand, if al-Shabaab does take control and does, as Howden suggests, fall apart, then isn’t this just another sad reset for Somalia, another return to a state of war and anarchy? The vacuum left behind after Somaila’s government first collapsed in 1991 was filled by warlords; when the warlords were defeated, the vacuum was filled by the Union of Islamic Courts, an umbrella group for a collection of Islamist factions; when Ethiopian peacekeepers drove the Courts out of Mogadishu, they were replaced by al-Shabaab, and on it goes…

Ultimately, it’s hard to see the US, the African Union, Uganda or Somalia’s neighbor Ethiopia going along with the “give up on the TFG” strategy (in fact it’s easier to see all involved just getting themselves in deeper as Uganda has already indicated they would). But it is good to read ideas from people like Howden, who are definitely thinking outside the box, especially when we’ve seen how poorly the whole traditional “counter-insurgency” idea has worked so far in Afghanistan in combating Islamist groups like the Taliban (or in this case al-Shabaab) and in establishing an actual effective national government.
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