Editor's Note: Bronwyn Bruton and J. Peter Pham are, respectively, deputy director and director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.
By Bronwyn Bruton and J. Peter Pham, Foreign Affairs
Since 2007, al Shabab, an al Qaeda-linked militia, has been locked in a violent stalemate with Somalia's weak and dysfunctional Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Back in 2009, it was clear that this conflict was far from inevitable: today's tragedy is a result of a series of bad policy decisions by the United States, regional actors, and the United Nations. And it has been actively sustained by external forces - al Qaeda provided al Shabab funding and tactical expertise while the United States and other countries bolstered the TGF, fueling an unproductive conflict. Somalis in Mogadishu have sometimes characterized the bloody saga as a "diaspora war," as both sides are at least partially proxies for foreign powers.
Until this summer, al Shabab fought unsuccessfully to rout the TFG from its strongholds in the presidential palace and ports, and the TFG was unable to reliably project its authority beyond a nominal presence in some of Mogadishu's neighborhoods. Al Shabab's human rights abuses and the peacekeepers' regular, indiscriminate mortar fire were brutal burdens for Mogadishu's residents. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes to other parts of Somalia, to Kenya and Yemen, and onward into the Middle East. The conflict devastated the Somali economy, drained the country's resources, weakened its population, and set the stage for the terrible famine that is obliterating the southern half of the country.
The impasse seemed more or less unbridgeable until the first week of August, when al Shabab forces shouldered their weapons and walked, unexpectedly, out of Mogadishu. A little less than a year before, African Union peacekeepers (known by their acronym, AMISOM) had managed to eke out some territorial gains after al Shabab's September 2010 so-called Ramadan Offensive ended in failure. When al Shabab withdrew, the AU claimed the retreat as a hard-earned victory but was quick to warn that the move would probably be temporary and tactical - a sign that al Shabab was planning to return to the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics it had used to drive some 17,000 Ethiopian troops (a much larger force than the 10,000-strong AMISOM) out of Mogadishu two years earlier. Indeed, on his way out of the city, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, al Shabab's leader, indicated that the group had been discussing a change in tactics. Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a top al Qaeda operative killed earlier this year, had reportedly been pushing the group to abandon head-on confrontation with the AU forces in favor of a disruptive terror campaign that would blanket Mogadishu - if not the whole of Somalia - with IEDs and suicide bombings.
Such a scenario is terrifying, to be sure, but unlikely. Al Shabab's previous successful guerrilla campaigns were more a product of politics than military prowess. After Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 to unseat the country's broadly popular Islamist regime, al Shabab seized a leading position in the ensuing nationalist insurgency. It formed alliances of convenience with other clans, bandits, and foreign jihadis, but their unity of purpose was short-lived. Since the withdrawal of the Ethiopian army in January 2009, al Shabab has struggled to maintain cohesion among its many disparate parts.
Indeed, al Shabab has never been weaker. Its fighters were initially embraced by the Somali public as a last defense against foreigners - whether the Ethiopians or the Americans engaged in ham-fisted counterterrorism operations. But today, much of the public despises al Shabab for its amputations, stonings, and beheadings of Somali citizens (punishments utterly alien to Somalia's traditional version of Islam); its recruitment of children; its cold-blooded use of civilians as human shields; and its harsh taxation schemes. Without public support, al Shabab may be able to launch the occasional suicide bombing or plant the odd roadside bomb in the middle of the night, but a sustained guerrilla campaign will simply be scattershot and ineffective.
Meanwhile, several counterterrorism strikes by U.S. Special Operations Forces and some unlucky turns in the road by several Shabab militants have steadily eliminated many of the group's leadership in Somalia. Over time, the connection to al Qaeda has fizzled. Counterterrorist strikes have eliminated the leaders who had trained or fought in Afghanistan and Pakistan prior to 9/11 and had personal connections with al Qaeda Central, and much of al Shabab's foreign jihadist faction seem to have decamped from Somalia for Yemen. Al Shabab's remaining management seems as interested in turning a profit in the illicit charcoal- and sugar-smuggling trades as in pursuing the jihad. (Foreign funding for the Somali conflict has petered out, and the famine destroyed al Shabab's lucrative taxation racket in the south of the country, so the group is short on cash.) Logic suggests that the withdrawal from Mogadishu had more to do with a decline in fortunes –figuratively and literally - than with any wise tactical calculation.
At the same time, the odds that the TFG will benefit from al Shabab's malaise are slim. Ironically, al Shabab's withdrawal from Mogadishu comes at a time when international support for the TFG is at an all-time low. (The TFG's weakness may in fact be a causal factor in al Shabab's withdrawal - the widespread perception within Somalia that the government has been abandoned by its international backers and is on the verge of collapse has eliminated al Shabab's final raison d'être.) In August, even as the UN acquiesced to the extension of the transitional mandate for another year, it noted that the TFG had failed to accomplish a single one of its goals in the seven years since it was created. These include completing a Somali constitution and holding municipal and district elections, the deadlines for which have been pushed from 2008 to 2010 to 2011.
This year, the TFG and UN mediators agreed to create a road map for accomplishing these tasks and decided to prioritize local elections. This was a clever move, since doing so will delay presidential and parliamentary elections, leaving the current president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament safely in their seats. Given the inability of the president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, to collaborate with any faction outside of his presidential compound, it is unlikely that even municipal elections will take place. The road map has probably done little more than postpone the inevitable reckoning by one more year.
During the famine, the TFG has shown wanton disregard for the public welfare. It is actively impeding delivery of humanitarian relief to the country's famine-ravaged areas; the government "troops" are little more than warlord militia who over the years have been guilty of theft, rape, kidnapping, murder, and, most commonly, setting up roadblocks for the purpose of extortion. They regularly steal food aid, on one occasion even shooting and killing starving Somalis at a UN food distribution center in the process.
There is little hope, then, that the TFG will be able to capitalize on al Shabab's withdrawal from Mogadishu. The government and the AU peacekeeping forces are stretched so thin that even in the wake of al Shabab's departure the TFG has not been able to retake the city. Al Shabab fighters have already crept back into Mogadishu and are quietly squatting in at least three of the city's 16 districts.
The weakness of both al Shabab and the TFG has produced a confusing security vacuum in Mogadishu that appears to be spreading outside of the capital. As both the TFG and al Shabab falter, Somalia's watchful clans have stepped into the fray. Various militias, including some led by the warlords who infamously stole food relief and tortured Somalia's population during the 1991 famine, are vying for control. But what appears to be a transition back to clan rule may be more semantic than substantive. In many cases, the so-called return of clan forces will mean little more than the existing al Shabab militias shaving off their beards. (Many al Shabab leaders - including Aweys, Muktar Robow, and Fuu'ad Shongole, who have criticized the global ambitions of al Shabab's foreign leaders and sought a nationalist agenda for al Shabab, are reportedly already attempting to create separate clan-based mini-states for themselves.) Al Shabab's habit of working within rather than against the clan system and the growing Somali enthusiasm for sharia law as a source of unity and order mean that al Shabab's conservative influence is likely to endure even as the organization itself collapses. This also makes it far more likely that some reincarnated version of al Shabab will appear in response to the next Somali crisis.
The United States now faces a fork in the road. When it helped set up the TFG in 2006, the United States' primary objectives in the country were to stop the expansion of extremist forces and to prevent the formation of al Qaeda cells and training camps. Al Shabab is indeed weaker today, but not because of U.S. policy. And, before the group lost favor in Somalia, it managed to construct a complex global network of operatives and training camps - all funded by an impressive taxation and export regime. There is a very real possibility that al Shabab's various cells abroad - in Kenya, South Africa, Yemen, to name a few - will emerge as long-term threats to U.S. national security.
An over-aggressive counterterrorism campaign, including attempts to prop up the incompetent TFG as a proxy against al Shabab, could re-energize the flagging conflict. And attempts to prop up regional, district, or clan-based leadership, as some in the administration have proposed, could reignite clan warfare. In 2009, Bronwyn Bruton proposed "constructive disengagement" as the best policy option to overcome this problem. Under a policy of constructive disengagement, the United States would pursue development efforts in Somalia without any regard to governance, cooperating pragmatically with any group that promised to peacefully deliver benefits to the public, including al Shabab.
Since then, there have been disappointingly few changes in U.S. policy. To be sure, policymakers have been forced to recognize that the TFG is irredeemably incompetent and corrupt. A confidential audit by a reputable international financial house embedded within the TFG found that the government was unable to account for over 96 percent of bilateral aid. The findings contained in the July report to the Security Council of the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia were perhaps even more damning. "Diversion of arms and ammunition from the Transitional Federal Government and its affiliated militias has been another significant source of supply to arms dealers in Mogadishu," the report read, "and by extension to al-Shabab." Yet with the exception of meeting with an occasional visiting official from the stable, but secessionist, northwestern region of Somaliland, U.S. diplomats still almost exclusively deal with the TFG.
Current U.S. policy toward Somalia is neither engaged enough to fix the country's problems nor emphatically disengaged enough to remove U.S. influence as an instigating factor in the conflict. The United States cannot perpetually extend the TFG's mandate, nor can it indefinitely pay the AU to prop up its hapless proxy in the fight against al Shabab. It cannot even teach the TFG to protect itself: of the more than 9,000 Somali troops the United States and Europe has trained and equipped, nearly 90 percent have deserted, in most cases taking their weapons with them. Meanwhile, constructive disengagement is now less than optimal as famine sweeps the region. U.S. policies are partially responsible for the extent and gravity of the crisis to begin with. (Since 2009, the United States has withheld aid to al Shabab-controlled territories. Between 2008 and 2010, its total food aid to Somalia declined by 88 percent.) The United States' standing in Africa will depend, in part, on whether it now helps those in need.
If shoring up the TFG is counterproductive at best, and "constructive disengagement" is impolitic, what should come next?
The United States should remember first and foremost that most of the conflicts that have wreaked havoc on Somalia for the last few decades have been magnified by the attempts of outsiders - from the well-intentioned humanitarians of the 1990s to the brutal foreign jihadists more recently - to determine their outcome by endorsing and funding one side. Such efforts have stoked the fires of Somali resentment, and worse, have incentivized winner-take-all competition over resources (namely, foreign aid).
Instead, the United States could engage Somali leaders instrumentally, agnostic in regard to the identity of the potential winners and losers. The various Somali actors - governmental entities, regional authorities, clans, and civil society organizations - would be accorded equal access to international resources, but only to the extent that they prove themselves capable of meeting defined benchmarks and of absorbing the assistance that would be provided them for relief and development. Al Shabab leaders who renounced al Qaeda, promised regional cooperation, and focused on providing for their clan constituencies would be prime targets for engagements, while militant jihadists would be excluded. The leaders engaged under this proposal would, in effect, earn aid by proving their legitimacy with constituents. The aid they receive and distribute would, in turn, reinforce those bonds.
For its part, the United States would move from trying to pick the "right" winners to rewarding those who prove themselves to be good bets. This approach has the advantage of drawing upon a long Somali tradition of bottom-up governance and would be a more efficient means of managing Somalia's profound social fissures. This strategy - which might be characterized as one of "earned engagement" - differs from previous bottom-up or "building block" efforts by putting the onus squarely on the Somalis to create whatever sort of governance structures suit them, without prejudice from the United States. Because the policy is agnostic, and would not seek to enshrine one set of leaders over any other, U.S. engagement would be far less likely to trigger a winner-take-all response.
The repeated failure of attempts by outsiders to reestablish a national government in Somalia (lest it be forgotten, the TFG is either the fourteenth or fifteenth such effort, depending on how one counts it) have succeeded in worsening the terror threat from Somalia and have aggravated the deadliest famine in decades. The current humanitarian catastrophe underscores the profound error of privileging top-down, state-centric processes. The UN, Western governments including the United States, and other African countries have tried repeatedly to build the kind of entity that they are most comfortable dealing with in defiance of local social and political dynamics and regional history. The stubborn refusal to acknowledge this reality in Somalia has resulted in the repeated capture of even the most well-intended, carefully crafted efforts by the very spoilers whose lack of legitimacy provoked the crisis in the first place. The real tragedy is that the failure to learn this lesson has not only wasted billions of dollars in recent years alone but also continues to cause immense human suffering in one of the most vulnerable corners of the globe.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bronwyn Bruton and J. Peter Pham.