It was great to see two op-eds in The New York Times the other day that talked some sense on the crisis in Somalia. The piece by Bronwyn Bruton, “In Somalia, Talk to the Enemy,” was particularly well put. She writes,
There are better ways for the United States to prevent the rise of terrorist groups in Somalia. A strategy of “constructive disengagement” — in which the international community would extricate itself from Somali politics, but continue to provide development and humanitarian aid and conduct the occasional special forces raid against the terrorists — would probably be enough to pull the rug out from under Al Shabab. This group, led mostly by foreign extremists fresh from the battlefields of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, is internally divided, and is hated in Somalia.
In “Tea with a Terrorist,” Aiden Hartley provides insight into the leadership of Al Shabab, which he gleaned through his personal encounters with the group while reporting for Channel 4 TV of Britain. Hartley echoes many of the sentiments found in “Talk to the Enemy,” arguing that Al Shabab need an outside enemy to gain support and thrive in Somalia. He comments,
With an exterior enemy distracting Somalis from their clan divisions, Al Shabab’s insurgents gained support among some clan powerbrokers while at the same time terrorizing the people into submission. While Ethiopian troops pulled out early last year, they were replaced by Amisom, a force of African peacekeepers mostly from Burundi and Uganda ordered to protect a Western-backed government. It hasn’t hurt Al Shabab and other Somali hard-line groups that the peacekeepers have a tendency to fire mortars into civilian neighborhoods.
Despite the logic contained in the arguments provided by Bruton, Hartley, and other experts, there remains an inability to disengage from the conflict. Following the July 11th bombings in Kampala, for which Al Shabab claimed responsibility, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni expressed his intent to “eliminate” the group. Unsurprisingly, leaders at the African Union summit in Kampala this week approved a request to send an additional 2,000 troops to reinforce the 5,000 African Union peacekeepers currently in Somalia. Moreover, the rules of engagement will be changed to allow troops to “fire first if they are facing imminent attack.” Meanwhile, here in the United States we continue to prop up what remains of the Somali government, paying for and arming its soldiers.
The international conflict with Al Shabab is only the latest episode in Somalia’s long and traumatic history. However, the way that this crisis is handled by the Obama administration and the African Union will likely determine whether or not Al Shabab fizzles and dies out or continues to gain strength and momentum. In light of recent events and past history, I am not hopeful for a sudden policy revision, but perhaps if enough Brutons, Hartleys, and others continue to make their voices heard things will change.