Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What exactly does the Washington Post want done in east Africa?

The Somali insurgent group al-Shabaab has claimed credit for the suicide attack in the Ugandan capital of Kampala that killed 74 civilians on Sunday, leading a whole bunch of front pages to squeal about how "al Qaeda's east African branch" had demonstrated its capacity and desire to undertake external operations. The Washington Post's editorial board, for one, is pissed.

Such a campaign poses, at the least, a serious risk to the stability of Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, which all have tried to prevent an al-Shabab takeover in Somalia. Given the U.S. passport holders known to have joined al-Shabab, an attempt to attack the U.S. homeland -- such as that attempted by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen last Christmas -- is entirely plausible. The Obama administration hasn't ignored the danger: In addition to providing aid to the Somali government and army, it has ordered raids by U.S. forces on terrorist targets in Somalia.

But Kenya's foreign minister, Moses Wetangula, was right when he said last week -- before the Uganda bombings -- that the United States was not doing enough to combat the threat. The Somali government and army need more help, and ideally, more foreign forces; more should be done to stop the flow of weapons into the country. More U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Shabab leaders should be undertaken. The situation in Somalia, Mr. Wetangula told the Associated Press, is "very, very dire." It is time for the United States to recognize that -- and to respond before al-Shabab can escalate its foreign attacks.

Now I don't mean to sound dismissive about all of this, but what exactly does the Post want to have happen? As noted in the article, the USG is already providing aid to Somalia and has undertaken strikes against al-Shabaab targets on African soil. American personnel are also providing training and support to the Ugandan forces that make up the bulk of the African Union peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu. So what else?

Well, "ideally, more foreign forces," says the Post. The U.S. obviously isn't going to be the one to provide those forces, so one can only presume that they're asking for more international peacekeepers. The AU force is holding on by a thread, but it's hard to imagine NATO or UN troops going in to push back al-Shabaab forces. So this means more Africans. Is the U.S. really best positioned to go asking for others to participate, considering extant suspicions about our intentions vis-a-vis AFRICOM, U.S. mil presence in Djibouti, and so on?

Furthermore, are more Africans really going to do all that much? I'm not suggesting that the AU force is incompetent, or that more forces couldn't tip the balance, but are there any really good reasons to believe that they will?

What else does the Post have in mind? "[M]ore should be done to stop the flow of weapons into the country." Ok, fine, fair enough. But why? Between this and the plea for more foreign troops, it's clear that the editorial is focused on preventing AS from making further gains in its military campaign against the Transitional Federal Government. But does that really have all that much to do with AS' ability to launch terrorist attacks against the U.S. or its interests abroad? Does AS need to hold the capital in order to have the much sought-after "safe haven" apparently so essential to mounting successful terrorist operations with global reach?

Is the AS-TFG military struggle really all that meaningful to U.S. interests? Don't get me wrong, I think it's probably a better scenario if we can shrink the list of states that are categorically and irreversibly opposed to everything the U.S. says and does, rather than extending it. But from a concrete, tangible perspective, does it really matter all that much who is "running" Somalia (to the extent that it's ever being run at all)?

This line of reasoning (and questioning) is obviously very relevant to the war in Afghanistan. After all, if we've concluded that we have to fight a war in south Asia to eliminate a possible terrorist safe haven, then it shouldn't come as any great shock that others would conclude that such a safe haven needs to be eliminated in east Africa. But even if the TFG "wins," is the safe haven gone? And even if the safe haven is gone (as it apparently is in Afghanistan, at least within that state's borders), does that mean that terrorists can't operate effectively?

So the Washington Post wants action. So does Kenya's foreign minister, apparently, for whatever that's worth. But can someone tell me exactly why it's so essential that we intervene? And if it is so essential, how we're going to do it? Because it we're going to keep zapping known AS guys with AC-130s and UAVs and Tomahawks and whatnot, fine with me. But it seems like that's about our only option, and it seems like a pretty good way to get the rest of Somalia to pick sides, too.

10 comments:

  1. Actually Gulliver, a deeper understanding of the region and its dynamics would both reveal greater cause for concern, and more options for engagement.

    I'm going to set aside your larger question regarding the importance of safe havens for now, while agreeing that it is critical. I would say that transnational terrorism reaching the US homeland is not the only reason to try to deescalate the increasingly blurred Horn of Africa (HOA) and Central African conflict systems (by which I mean the dynamics that link Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, CAR, Rwanda, DR Congo, Burundi and Chad into one giant cluster f&*%, with Libya, Egypt, and the whole Trans-Sahel playing at the margins). At the very minimum, the spread of regional terrorism could seriously constrain US investment and therefore influence in a region that increasingly integrated into global trade, and of increasing strategic value for other states, esp. China.

    Fundamentally your question about why we should intervene (aside from the terrorist safe-haven argument) could just as easily be asked about any other regional conflict. Why do we care about North Korea? Or Georgia? Or even Israel? Because the international system more often than not works to our benefit. And keeping other countries invested in that system means investing resources alongside them to address challenges at the edge of the system, as well as those at the core. Not to mention that helping AMISOM means building regional capacity to deal with problems, lessening the likelihood that we'll need to intervene directly in the future.

    And yes, more AMISOM troops would make a huge difference, IF they are given more resources and their actions are fully nested in a broader political strategy of engagement with the various clan, regional, Sunni and Sufi groups that have sprung up to resist Al Shabab.

    As to what else to do - here's a start:

    - Address the growing instability in the Kenyan political system so we don't have yet another failing state in the region (requires coordinated DOS, USAID effort, with support from DOD)

    - Push/help the Kenyan government to come up with a better response to the enormous number of Somali refugees living both near the border and around Nairobi.

    - Help the Ugandans finish off the LRA so they can shift more troops to AMISOM

    - Build a stronger regional consensus about how to deal with the coming conflict in Sudan following the January 2011 referendum (to avoid having neighbours dragged into that war, and Al Shabab taking advantage)

    - keep the TFG from going broke

    - support work by Somalis on an eventual federal governance structure for Somalia, involving existing regional governments like those in Somaliland, Puntland, and Gulmadug.

    - Invest serious efforts in resolving the Eritrea/Ethiopia deadlock, either by finding carrots and sticks big enough to get Ethiopia to give up Badme, or coaxing Eritrea into some alternative settlement.

    None of these involve major deployments of US or NATO troops. Some are likely required to irrevocably cripple the LRA, but it would nonetheless be a very small number. In this case, 'light footprint' actions would be more effective than large deployments. But your suggestion that 'zapping' Al Shabab will on its own force Somalis to pick sides is pretty silly in light of the historical record there. Somalia is part of a conflict system, and unpicking that Gordian knot isn't going to be accomplished with an AC-130

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  2. Fundamentally your question about why we should intervene (aside from the terrorist safe-haven argument) could just as easily be asked about any other regional conflict. Why do we care about North Korea? Or Georgia? Or even Israel? Because the international system more often than not works to our benefit. And keeping other countries invested in that system means investing resources alongside them to address challenges at the edge of the system, as well as those at the core.

    1. Yes, we can just as easily ask the same question about other conflicts. The difference is that the answers are better.

    2. Are you Thomas PM Barnett in disguise?

    3. So all we have to do to fix Somalia is fix Africa?

    4. You misunderstood my AC-130 line, probably because I was being glib. My point was that if people change sides based on that sort of thing, it's not going to turn out in our favor.

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  3. 1. They may sound better to you, but they sound worse to the rest of the world. And the opinion of rest of the world shapes and constrains choices, even for the lone superpower. At the very minimum, it can heavily influence the transaction costs for achieving US goals.

    2. Are you a neo-isolationist who refuses to acknowledge our interconnectedness with the rest of the world?

    3. That comment is beneath you. You asked how we're going to change the dynamics in Somalia in favor of the TFG. I offered concrete proposals that don't involve major expenditures of blood or treasure. Glib dismissals aren't a substitute for informed arguments.

    4. I did misunderstand you. But if you think the 'death from above' option will turn Somalis to Al Shabab, why are you okay with it?

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  4. They may sound better to you, but they sound worse to the rest of the world. And the opinion of rest of the world shapes and constrains choices, even for the lone superpower. At the very minimum, it can heavily influence the transaction costs for achieving US goals.

    Of course it can. Does that mean that the U.S. should abandon an interest-based foreign policy and instead pursue only altruistic policy options that meet with the full and unswerving support of the international community? Of course not.

    In all of this, you've still failed to give a compelling rationale for why east Africa (or Yemen, or Afghanistan for that matter) is more important to our interests than anywhere else... or really how it's important to our interests at all. I see more of the same vague language about failed states and terror sanctuary and maintenance of the international system, but it's not exactly like the status quo is 1) beneficial to the U.S., or 2) sustainable. How is the success of the TFG going to make anything better?

    Are you a neo-isolationist who refuses to acknowledge our interconnectedness with the rest of the world?

    Uh, pretty obviously not.

    Yes, the U.S. benefits from the international system more than most other states. That's the upside of global leadership. It's also the reason that we're interested in strengthening global institutions (and to use a TPMB phrase, "rule sets"), and it's also why we're fundamentally a status quo power.

    Are there trends that we ought to effort to support if it can be done so relatively painlessly and with little investment, like institution-building (with the attendant positive effects for economy and investment) in east Africa? Sure.

    So again we're back where we started: what are the concrete steps that you think would usefully contribute to that? Because the rest of your comment really does suggest that your view is something like what I wrote in my last: that we can fix Somalia by fixing the rest of Africa.

    Address the growing instability in the Kenyan political system so we don't have yet another failing state in the region (requires coordinated DOS, USAID effort, with support from DOD)

    How? (And what's the support from DoD?)

    Push/help the Kenyan government to come up with a better response to the enormous number of Somali refugees living both near the border and around Nairobi.

    How? What "better response" is out there?

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  5. Help the Ugandans finish off the LRA so they can shift more troops to AMISOM

    How? Because we already advise the Ugandan army, and I'm pretty sure we provide them with some equipment. If you think that U.S. troops are going to go tromping around the jungles of central Africa, or even enablers like air, logistics/sustainment, etc., then you're absolutely nuts. Further, why should we have any confidence that "finishing off" the LRA will be as simple and cut-and-dry as you suggest?

    Build a stronger regional consensus about how to deal with the coming conflict in Sudan following the January 2011 referendum (to avoid having neighbours dragged into that war, and Al Shabab taking advantage)

    How? What's our role in building regional consensus when WE'RE NOT IN THE REGION? Can we ignore how generally unsuccessful we've been in "building regional consensus" on pretty much everything else related to Sudan (or to Somalia, for that matter)?

    keep the TFG from going broke

    Why? Because they're a better option than AS?

    support work by Somalis on an eventual federal governance structure for Somalia, involving existing regional governments like those in Somaliland, Puntland, and Gulmadug.

    How? (And isn't this really sort of putting the cart before the horse? And might not those who are pretty much getting their own shit together up in Somaliland be a little bit resistant to our "support" to the development of a federal system? I don't know what their take is on autonomy versus independence, etc.)

    Invest serious efforts in resolving the Eritrea/Ethiopia deadlock, either by finding carrots and sticks big enough to get Ethiopia to give up Badme, or coaxing Eritrea into some alternative settlement.

    What serious efforts? What carrots and sticks? And really, why?

    And finally... But if you think the 'death from above' option will turn Somalis to Al Shabab, why are you okay with it?

    Basically, my point is this: the status quo is working. I don't see any reason to get more involved and start blowing MORE people up, but if we can zap these known, confirmed leaders, then sure, keep it up. Mostly I don't much care whether AS has popular support or doesn't, whether the TFG fails or doesn't, whether the US is widely resented or isn't. To suggest that terrorism against the US is going to go away if we cooperate in the building of a strong and stable Somali state and convince east Africans that we're stand up guys is just, for me, completely ludicrous.

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  6. Here's some more on the subject from the CSM's Africa Monitor:

    Supporting the Somali government will not do much to mitigate the threat from Al Shabab. Let's be clear: Somalia's current, internationally-recognized federal government is a joke. It does not control its own capital city. It operated out of a hotel in Nairobi for several years. It would not exist were it not for the presence of foreign troops and substantial US backing.

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  7. More here with at least tangential relevance to the question of U.S. centrality to African arrangements.

    And then there's this:

    "The peace in Sudan is one the United States 'owns.'"

    No. Just no. This strikes me as indicative of a type of activism that, in an effort to spark and sustain American interest, overemphasizes U.S. relevance to the situation, and obscures the importance of local actors. (See, e.g., the recent LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act.)

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  8. While I'm at it, does anyone else find it curious how we repeatedly hear AS referred to as a splinter of the Islamic Courts Union, but no one mentions that President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of the ol' last-best-hope Transitional Federal Government was the ICU's Commander in Chief before they were removed from power with U.S. backing?

    The New Yorker did a Somalia piece late last year with some details about Sharif if anyone's interested. Unfortunately for non-subscribers, the full story is paywalled.

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  9. Ok--I'm going to have to comment in two parts because this thing is too long:

    I've been hesitant to get into the proverbial line of fire on this one but...it's Saturday, I finished a bunch of work projects and, since I know a bit about this, here we go.

    I completely disagree that the status quo is working and I don’t think that the only or most productive way to do something is to get more involved and blow more people up. The fact is, we are heavily involved and we are blowing people up.

    Let me go back to the bad old days of the ICU...Given the living conditions under the ICU (and let’s not conflate ICU and AS) were what they were (the evidence suggests that what people liked best about the ICU was that they were consistent when it came to punishment for offenses, no one like the punishment but people liked that they knew what would happen if someone robbed them), I care whether or not AS, today, has popular support. Evidence suggests that popular support is decreasing (see suggested reading below) and that this is something the TFG, AMISOM, and its supporters could build on. While I agree that the TFG isn’t, in its current form, a solution, I think there’s got to be a way to build a certain level of governance in Somalia because if it can be done in Somaliland and Puntland, it can be done in the rest of the country.

    Concerning support to AMISOM and Uganda. Ugandan troops (and Burundian actually) were trained through ACOTA/GPOI prior to deployment and unless things have changed, which I don’t think they have since the supplemental (again) has money in PKO for AMISOM (PKO is the account for voluntary US contributions to peacekeeping, its counterpart is CIPA, the account for assessed contributions to peacekeeping--this is so SNLII doesn't yell at me for using acronyms), we’re paying for a big chunk of the lifting into Somalia (for FY 2010 it was $116 million). This has made a huge difference in AMISOM’s performance. It’s clear that more troops (especially well-trained and equipped troops) with the right kind of force posture and ROE on the use of force would, in fact, make a difference (MK--leaving the details to you on this one). This looks like it may happen since Uganda volunteered to send 5,000 more last week.

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  10. Part II:

    Second, Kenya—you should go read some Crisis Group reports on Kenya. It’s scary and it’s about to blow up. Again, I’ll leave the more detailed discussion of conflict indicators to MK since he’s more recently spoken with people on the ground who know what they’re talking about. On the LRA, yes, it would help to finish them off and I’m not saying we should do it but I think we should help Uganda do it (it’s clear that the FARDC can't do it, stop falling off your chair laughing and crying MK, CAR, South Sudan aren’t going to take care of it either).

    One of the blog posts you linked to suggested that the bombing was an indication that the conflict had finally bled past Somalia’s borders. I’m sorry but that’s nonsense. The Somali conflict has been bleeding all over the region since it started. To say that the refugee flows into Kenya and Yemen, Ethiopian (including the US endorsed invasion of Somalia) and Eritrean support (leading to the imposition of UN sanctions against Eritrea), hasn’t played into regional dynamics and growing instability in Kenya, political repression in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and piracy in the Gulf is ignoring well-documented fact (again, see suggested reading below).

    Concerning your last point on the President, AS, and the ICU. Everyone does talk about it, just not in simplistic blog posts, once every 8 months editorials on Somalia (the last one I saw was from November 2009) and news stories aimed at the average reader. In fact, people (by that I mean people who follow Somalia closely, are involved with designing SSR programs there, or colleagues at Crisis Group and the UN who have Somalia in their portfolio) talk about how in our haste to get rid of ICU and support to Ethiopia, we contributed (unintentionally yes but we still did) to building up AS and it came back to bite us in the ass. They talk about how much of a setback that led to in our campaign to stabilize Somalia

    Finally, I would recommend some reading. First, the most recent report of the UN’s monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea (http://www.un.org/sc/committees/751/mongroup.shtml). The Monitoring Group describes international support to the TFG, calling it uneven and lacking in intent. It does argue however, that improvements could make a difference in dealing with Shabab and other armed groups. Second, the relevant Crisis Group (www.crisisgroup.org) documents the splintering of Shabab in particular and recommends ways these faultlines could be exploited. Go read both.

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