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Somalia, Redux: A More Hands-Off Approach, Cato Policy Analysis No. 649

Somalia, Redux: A More Hands-Off Approach, Cato Policy Analysis No. 649

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Published by Cato Institute
The two-decade-old conflict in Somalia has
entered a new phase, which presents both a challenge
and an opportunity for the United States.
The elections of new U.S. and Somali presidents
in late 2008 and early 2009 provide an opportunity
to reframe U.S.-Somali relations. To best
encourage peace in the devastated country,
Washington needs a new strategy that takes into
account hard-learned lessons from multiple
failed U.S. interventions. The old strategy favoring
military force and reflexive opposition to all
Islamists should give way to one emphasizing
regional diplomacy and at least tacit acceptance
of a government that is capable of bringing order
to Somalia.

Whatever the Obama administration's approach
to Somalia, it must avoid the failures of
the Bush administration. The rise of a popular,
moderate Islamic government in 2006 sparked an
Ethiopian invasion, for which the United States
provided key backing. Washington defended its
support of the Ethiopian attack on the grounds
that Somalia's Islamic Courts regime was actively
harboring known members of al Qaeda, a claim
that appears to have been exaggerated.

The resulting Ethiopian occupation of Somalia
—in which as many as 16,000 people died—collapsed
in early 2009 against the backdrop of one of
the world's worst sustained humanitarian crises.
Taking advantage of the political and economic
chaos, hundreds of desperate Somali fishermen
turned to piracy, making the waters off Somalia
the world's most dangerous for seafarers.



With the Islamists' return to power earlier this
year, under the banner of the new president,
Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Washington has a rare
chance to reset bilateral relations. The Obama
administration should work to build a regional
framework for reconciliation, the rule of law, and
economic development that acknowledges the
unique risks of intervention in East Africa.

Somalia's best hope for peace is the moderate
Islamic government that has emerged from the
most recent rounds of fighting, despite early
opposition from the United States and its allies.
There are ways in which the United States could
help Somalia escape its cycle of violence and
peacefully encourage progress by working with
this former enemy, but Washington should err
on the side of nonintervention.
The two-decade-old conflict in Somalia has
entered a new phase, which presents both a challenge
and an opportunity for the United States.
The elections of new U.S. and Somali presidents
in late 2008 and early 2009 provide an opportunity
to reframe U.S.-Somali relations. To best
encourage peace in the devastated country,
Washington needs a new strategy that takes into
account hard-learned lessons from multiple
failed U.S. interventions. The old strategy favoring
military force and reflexive opposition to all
Islamists should give way to one emphasizing
regional diplomacy and at least tacit acceptance
of a government that is capable of bringing order
to Somalia.

Whatever the Obama administration's approach
to Somalia, it must avoid the failures of
the Bush administration. The rise of a popular,
moderate Islamic government in 2006 sparked an
Ethiopian invasion, for which the United States
provided key backing. Washington defended its
support of the Ethiopian attack on the grounds
that Somalia's Islamic Courts regime was actively
harboring known members of al Qaeda, a claim
that appears to have been exaggerated.

The resulting Ethiopian occupation of Somalia
—in which as many as 16,000 people died—collapsed
in early 2009 against the backdrop of one of
the world's worst sustained humanitarian crises.
Taking advantage of the political and economic
chaos, hundreds of desperate Somali fishermen
turned to piracy, making the waters off Somalia
the world's most dangerous for seafarers.



With the Islamists' return to power earlier this
year, under the banner of the new president,
Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Washington has a rare
chance to reset bilateral relations. The Obama
administration should work to build a regional
framework for reconciliation, the rule of law, and
economic development that acknowledges the
unique risks of intervention in East Africa.

Somalia's best hope for peace is the moderate
Islamic government that has emerged from the
most recent rounds of fighting, despite early
opposition from the United States and its allies.
There are ways in which the United States could
help Somalia escape its cycle of violence and
peacefully encourage progress by working with
this former enemy, but Washington should err
on the side of nonintervention.

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The two-decade-old conflict in Somalia hasentered a new phase, which presents both a chal-lenge and an opportunity for the United States.The elections of new U.S. and Somali presidentsin late 2008 and early 2009 provide an opportu-nity to reframe U.S.-Somali relations. To bestencourage peace in the devastated country,Washington needs a new strategy that takes intoaccount hard-learned lessons from multiplefailed U.S. interventions. The old strategy favor-ing military force and reflexive opposition to allIslamists should give way to one emphasizingregional diplomacy and at least tacit acceptanceof a government that is capable of bringing orderto Somalia.Whatever the Obama administration’s ap-proach to Somalia, it must avoid the failures of the Bush administration. The rise of a popular,moderate Islamic government in 2006 sparked anEthiopian invasion, for which the United Statesprovided key backing. Washington defended itssupport of the Ethiopian attack on the groundsthat Somalia’s Islamic Courts regime was actively harboring known members of al Qaeda, a claimthat appears to have been exaggerated.The resulting Ethiopian occupation of Somalia —in which as many as 16,000 people died—col-lapsed in early 2009 against the backdrop of one of the world’s worst sustained humanitarian crises.Taking advantage of the political and economicchaos, hundreds of desperate Somali fishermenturned to piracy, making the waters off Somalia the world’s most dangerous for seafarers.With the Islamists’ return to power earlier thisyear, under the banner of the new president,Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, Washington has a rarechance to reset bilateral relations. The Obama administration should work to build a regionalframework for reconciliation, the rule of law, andeconomic development that acknowledges theunique risks of intervention in East Africa.Somalia’s best hope for peace is the moderateIslamic government that has emerged from themost recent rounds of fighting, despite early opposition from the United States and its allies.There are ways in which the United States couldhelp Somalia escape its cycle of violence andpeacefully encourage progress by working withthis former enemy, but Washington should erron the side of nonintervention.
Somalia, Redux
 A More Hands-Off Approach
by David Axe
_____________________________________________________________________________________________________
 David Axe is a freelance military correspondent based in South Carolina and the author of 
War Fix
.
Executive Summary 
No. 649October 12, 2009
 
Introduction
Somalia is the location of one of the world’smost deeply rooted and persistent conflicts.Since the 1991 revolt against President SiadBarre’s repressive government, the fighting hasprogressed through three distinct phases, eachaccompanied by major humanitarian crises.The conflict has shattered the country’s politi-cal landscape and has resulted in two fully independent northern Somali substates—Somaliland and Puntland—each with its ownunique security problems. Meanwhile, greaterSomalia has devolved into a shifting patch-work of clan-based enclaves.The Somali conflict “defies the imagina-tion in terms of its complexity, with clans andsubclans that dominate internal politics,” saidTheresa Whalen, the U.S. Defense Depart-ment’s deputy assistant secretary for Africanaffairs in 2007, which was the height of theinsurgency against the occupying Ethiopianarmy. “In some ways,” Whalen added, the con-flict has “defied Africa’s ability to help Somalishelp themselves.”
1
Because of that complexity, Somalia hasproved remarkably resistant to foreign inter- vention. Three U.S.-led interventions since the1991 civil war have failed to achieve their goals,whether modest or ambitious. Internal initia-tives have made some modest progress. Surgesof popular Islamism have twice opened thedoor to a measure of slow national reconcilia-tion but have also alarmed foreign govern-ments—especially Washington.The first groundswell of Islamism, therapid spread of the grassroots Islamic CourtsUnion, incited a major intervention by theUnited States and Ethiopia. Both nationsinsisted that Islamic rule would mean the“Talibanization” of Somalia and would cre-ate an East African base for al Qaeda opera-tions. In retrospect, it seems that Washingtonsacrificed an opportunity for peace inSomalia on the altar of the “war on terror.”The second Islamist surge, beginning in thewake of the Ethiopian withdrawal early thisyear, saw the Islamic Courts Union return inall but name. That surge presents anotheropportunity for peace. The disastrous, U.S.-supported Ethiopian occupation of Somalia,which coincided with the bloodiest years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, forced a quiet butprofound shift in Washington’s approach toSomalia, which coincided with the beginningof Obama’s presidency.The Bush administration reacted toSomalia’s first Islamic surge in 2006 with a mixture of hostility and confrontation: thenascent Obama administration, by contrast,greeted the second Islamic surge of 2009 withguarded optimism. “We’re in a very promisingmoment. It’s fragile, but all new beginningsare,” a State Department official said of Somali President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’smoderate Islamic government in January. Theofficial added that the State Departmentwould be carefully watching Ahmed asObama’s senior advisers crafted a new strategy for Somalia.
2
The New Somali Regime
In 2009, Ahmed has facilitated reconcilia-tion between some Islamists and the UN- andU.S.-backed Transitional Federal Government,a Western-friendly alliance of outsider clans,resulting in a new “hybrid” government withbroader popular support and more fluid fac-tions than before.
3
He has also reestablished a federal presence in Mogadishu, Somalia’slargest city and traditional capital, for the firsttime since the 1991 civil war.
4
Finally, Ahmedhas promised to crack down on piracy andreportedly has worked through back channelsto deliver ultimatums directly to pirate bossesbased in autonomous Puntland and Somali-land.
5
 Ahmed’s actions represent an effort toforge a middle ground between his country’smany competing factions, the aid groupsthat feed and care for millions of Somalis,and the world powers with a stake inSomalia’s security. To appease some of Somalia’s more hard-line Islamists, inFebruary Ahmed even instituted sharia law in
2
Somaliahas provedremarkably resistant toforeignintervention.
 
the portions of Somali his government con-trols. But it was a moderate form of sharia calculated to avoid alienating moderateSomalis and Western powers. Under Ahmed’s brand of Islamic law, girls canattend school, and television and music areallowed.
6
These are all positive steps for Somalia—the most positive in years, or even decades.But the government resurgence has sparked a backlash by the major insurgent groups, par-ticularly the powerful extremist group alShabab. This armed group was once allied to Ahmed’s Islamic Courts Union, but splitaway as it grew increasingly radical and vio-lent, even proclaiming itself an ally of alQaeda (although al Shabab apparently remains a strictly internal insurgency with noaspiration to export terrorism).In May 2009, al Shabab launched an offen-sive from its bases in southern Somalia withthe intention of rolling back the government’srecent territorial and organizational gains.The fighting was the worst in months and wasthe first serious test for Ahmed’s administra-tion.
7
 Al Shabab characterized its attack as anattempt to liberate Somalia from an illegiti-mate “stooge” government, dominated by Western powers.
8
(The umbrella organizationfor the most powerful Somali insurgentgroups even calls itself the “Alliance for theReliberation of Somalia.”) But AhmedouOuld Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, de-nounced the offensive as a “coup attempt.”
9
 After two weeks of fighting, Ahmed’s govern-ment counterattacked, and succeeded in dri- ving back al Shabab. By June the violence hadebbed but not ended, as al Shabab seemed toredirect its efforts toward Ahmed’s allies incentral Somalia.
10
One challenge for Washington will be to tai-lor its support of the Somali government toprovide the assistance needed without slippinginto old interventionist habits that, in East Africa, especially, have proven to be counter-productive. The Obama administration hasseveral options. It can adopt a largely hands-off approach, reasoning that other global chal-lenges warrant more of its attention, and callon regional governments to play a larger role. Itcan back Ahmed’s government with financialand diplomatic support, or it can pledge suchsupport in the future provided that Ahmed’sgovernment meets certain conditions. Theleast appealing option would be to continuethe failed policy of military intervention thatbegan in the early 1990s and continuedthrough the Bush years.Nonmilitary support for Ahmed would bea major reversal for the United States, whichonce unfairly branded the Somali president’sIslamic Courts Union as terrorist sympathiz-ers. By allying with Ahmed, the Obama ad-ministration would demonstrate that it canaccept that a peaceful and prosperous Somalia probably means an Islamic government inSomalia—but not a Somalia that represents a serious terrorism threat. For the United States,learning to live with an Islamic government inSomalia would be a useful precedent forapproaching fragile, rising Islamic statesacross the developing world.
U.S. Interests in Somalia
 American interests in Somalia are several.Most immediately, the United States wants a Somalia that does not harbor or produceinternational terrorists. Similarly, Washingtonwants a Somalia that no longer functions as a safe haven for pirates. More broadly, Ameri-cans hope that Somalia, and all of East Africa,grows economically and better integrates intothe global economy. They are wary, however,of government-sponsored aid programs thatcost hundreds of millions of dollars but pro-duce very little.Washington is Somalia’s biggest sponsor. Annual State Department aid to Somalia aver-ages around $100 million.
11
The United Statesalso helps pay for UN operations in Somalia,which cost nearly $500 million annually.
12
Somalis living abroad, including tens of thou-sands in the United States, send nearly $1 bil-lion to their homeland every year.
13
 A peacefuland prosperous Somalia would be less of a burden on the developed world, and could
3
A peacefuland prosperousSomalia probably means an Islamicgovernment inSomalia—but nota Somalia thatrepresents aserious terrorismthreat.

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