How to end the stalemate in Somalia
A government fighter surveys the site where a car bomb ripped through a police base in Mogadishu. (Getty Images)
October 5th, 2011
02:30 PM ET

How to end the stalemate in Somalia

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.

Read: The Pentagon's cyberstrategy, one year later.

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.

Read: The resignation of Wadah Khanfar and the future of Al Jazeera.

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.

Read: 1848 and 2011.

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.

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Amber


    October 5, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
  2. jvonhettlingen

    Somalia is an inhospitable spot. Few people have the desire to settle down there, except the Islamists. Many had tried to tackle the problems and the Transitional Federal Government got help bottom-up and it didn't work. Nothing worked top-down neither. What to do?

    October 6, 2011 at 5:36 am |
  3. Timmy Suckle

    I kissed my way up to VP at a health insurance company. Now I take over $500,000 of your health care dollars for NO VALUE ADDED to your health care. And that’s just me. Now think about how many other VPs, Directors, Managers, etc. are at my company alone. Now multiply that by thousands of others at hundreds of other health insurance companies. From 10 to 25% of your health care dollars go towards administration that adds NO VALUE to your health care. But my company’s PAC dollars will continue to fool you little people into thinking that a single payer system will be bad. Little people like you are so easy to fool. Little people also don’t realize that a single payer system is the ONLY system that would allow little people (as an entire country) to negotiate better health care prices. Little people don’t realize that the Medical Cartels already know that. And that is the reason why the Medical Cartels spend so much PAC money from the hospitals and doctors lobbying against a single payer system. Some little people say that a single payer system would cost you little people more. But if that were true, then wouldn’t the hospitals and doctors WANT that extra money? Yes they would. So why do the Medical Cartels lobby against a single payer system? It’s because the Medical Cartels know it would allow little people to negotiate better health care prices. And that’s what the Medical Cartels are afraid of. Period.
    But us big wigs at insurance companies, hospitals, and pharmacy companies don’t ever need to worry about health care no matter what it costs. We get our health care paid for one way or another by you little people. And we get the little people that work at our companies to contribute to our PACs. And us big wigs say it’s to protect the little peoples’ jobs. But in reality it would be in the little peoples’ best interest to NOT contribute to the PAC. Again, little people are so easy to be fooled. I won’t ever have to worry about losing my job with so many little people being brain washed by the Medical Cartels’ PAC money. Not only that, the Medical Cartels’ PAC money is used to elect so many republicans that will never allow a single payer system. Republicans have always fought against any meaningful health care reform. But that’s what our Medical Cartels’ PACs pay them for. Politicians can be bought so easily.
    Pretty soon the only people that will be able to afford health care is us big wigs. And that’s the way it should be. We don’t want you little people using up the resources when we need them. And once again, I thank you little people for capping my SS tax at the $106,800 level. Now I only pay 1.3% SS tax and you little people pay 6.2%. Also, thank you for extending my tax breaks. I’m using the extra money on my vacation houses.

    October 6, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
  4. Glenn

    ask the italians, they funded Aidid and money laundered U.N aid back into their own pockets. They even allowed mortar teams to pass by italian check points which were bombing the airfield the Americans were at. You want to know how? Same as when the troops were sent in. Implement marshall law, elect a U.N coordinator to oversee developments and station 200,000 french/american/british soldiers in Sommalia. The country is in a mess with absolute lawlessness. Bill Clinton didnt have the stomach for Sommalia and was only interested in his political future.

    Short-term, there is no solution. The 15 trillion debt should be the absolute most important priority in the U.S. Now its up to the world to prove they can also do it instead of demonstrating against american "invasions" . I find it affable that U.N memeber countries are outraged by the violence, piracy, murder happening in Sommalia but what do they do? Where is the affermative action? Its all fun and games when the Americans volunteer to do the dirty business but when they themselves have to do something then suddenly its "too expensive" and "too risky". European members (not U.K) only go in if their personal interests are served, case in point Gerhard Schreoder ex Bundeskanzler of Germany.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:55 am |
  5. Dave

    Recognize Somaliland as a Country that's the only way that the world didn't try yet, and i think its the only way

    October 9, 2011 at 4:54 am |
  6. Pork

    get rid of the muslims.

    October 10, 2011 at 6:56 am |
  7. herman


    October 17, 2011 at 11:40 am |
    • Jerkinp

      Why the heck should the surrounding countries have to deal with the Muslim terrorists of Somalia. The very idea is stupid one for it would cause instability in their countries and the Muslims might attempt to enforce Sharia law in places where it don't exist.

      October 17, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  8. Jerkinp

    The main problem is the fact that people are wasting lives, money and time trying to fix something that is unfixable. The problem can only be managed not resolved. The best way to do this is make sure Somalia's internal strife not effect others. Prevent Somalia pirates from attacking ships by bombarding all coastal towns to force the people to head inwards. So there are no bases to carry out pirating operations. Continue to maintain an arms embargo. Force all Somalia refugee in the neighbouring countries to head back. No longer provide any food aid. Build a fence on all countries that border Somalia to keep the people in. Enact shoot to kill policy for anyone who tries to bypass the fence. Let nature take its course. Once imprisoned in their own country the Somalia will only have to blame Allah and themselves for the own problems created by them. For Al-Shabaab, the pirates, bandits, warlords and other militants ranks are made by the people of Somalia.

    October 17, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
    • Mystic

      Clearly, you too missed the following passage - which incidentally appeared in, what, the first paragraph?
      "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..."

      It's comical that most here are so willing to say the Somalians are incapable of maintaining order, when they HAD a society of order for themselves that was destroyed BY OUTSIDERS.

      October 17, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  9. How to end the stalemate in Somalia?


    October 17, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
  10. John

    To end the stalemate in Somalia is to drop some nukes and wipe them off the map once and for all.These animals will never ever live in peace with each other.

    October 17, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
    • Mystic

      It's a shame that some of you are either unable or unwilling to read (likely a little of both): "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"e

      They were quite living in peace before outsiders (first and foremost the United States got involved in 2006.

      October 17, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
  11. bob schwartz

    An impressive analysis and seemingly sound tentative solutions that the US should heed as construction advices. So much has failed in the past that the approach suggested by the author should be a welcome alternative.

    October 17, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  12. douglas james

    Call on Black Moses! Oh that sounds racist. Mr. Osama Bin Ladin Obama, go home and solve your continents problems.

    October 17, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • Mystic

      This problem was created in 2006, under George Bush, and their singular aim to take down any easily-influential country led by Muslims. It was George Bush's spiritual war that created the problem. Just needed to be pointed out.

      October 17, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  13. Mystic

    It bears repeating that, before the United States-backed Ethiopian invasion, Somalia was enjoying a period of stability and calm it hadn't seen in decades. So now we're wondering how the United States can help to solve yet another problem it created in the first place. On the face, seems wholly counter-intuitive. But as was said, if the foreigners would stop picking sides, and stop looking to gain something from installing sympathetic dictators, perhaps there would be some chance for resolution.

    October 17, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  14. MAMA-Salaam.

    Somalia has been failed by the whole world- hundred percents sure If the World want to help things can be done.
    1.Take the entire foreign troops out of Somalia
    African Union peacekeepers (known by their acronym, AMISOM)
    Ethiopian troops and others- then ship this troops to the borders between Kenya, Ethiopian and some in the Somalia shores and surrounding Areas where the Piracy do their dirty jobs.
    2. Replace AMISOM troops with American soldiers roughly 2000- but with one condition not to fight any Somalia's rather to educates the civilians, and to train any woman or man want to join the army, also to build school for kids and women so that they can have right and empowerment to educate a mother is educate a NATION . remember education is the key which means this people lacks that – as well men should be send to work examples on the farm, keeping livestock, fishing's for about some times then later they can be also sends to get some education..The reason Somalian man would not agree to go to school if he is an adult so it needs time, patience, and trust.
    3. Somalian who have good education all over the world should volunteers to go back and build the nation..there a lot who are well educated and have good leadership skill required to run the nation. Problem in Somalia can not be solved by GUNS, religious groups, or any other nations with interest of there own. If peace needed them people should forget about dirty politic, and other "hidden interest". PEOPLE'S IN SOMALIA has suffered enough wakes up the Democratic world and HELP!! We all know you can do what u wish.

    October 31, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
  15. Teresa Steinhorst

    Contact with us will help you

    December 16, 2020 at 5:24 pm |
  16. Tamie Twisdale

    What is the difference between a Joe Biden speech and a Donald Trump speech? When Biden is speaking you wonder if he's had a stroke. When Trump is speaking you wonder if you've had a stroke.

    December 23, 2020 at 12:48 pm |

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