by R. Bennett Furlow
To say Somalia has problems would be the very definition of an understatement. Piracy has certainly received its share of attention, primarily because it is sensational and somewhat easy to comprehend. The chaos in the south also gets some attention due to the rise of Islamists groups and the potential for Somalia to become a terrorist safe haven. Despite this increase in attention, there has been no real political or humanitarian progress in the country. Education is lacking, violence is a way of life and the political system is a shambles. It is time to make some dramatic changes to American policy toward Somalia.
Since the fall of the Said Barre regime in 1991, Somalia has been mired in chaos. In the subsequent twenty years various warlords and Islamist groups have come and gone. Al-Shabaab is the current Islamist power in the country and has control over much of the south; Hizbul Islam is another emergent Islamist group but it does not have the strength of al-Shabaab. Both of these groups fight the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Somalia’s “official” government.
One of al-Shabaab’s tactics is the use of child soldiers. Children as young as twelve are given weapons and sent out to fight the TFG. This is not a new tactic in Somalia; Mohammed Farah Aidid, a powerful warlord in the 1990s, used to get teenagers hopped up on qaat, a narcotic plant popular in the region, hand them AK-47s and send them into the streets to foment chaos and frighten the local populace.
Jeffrey Gettleman recently produced a short video and article about child soldiers in Somalia, and pointed out a terrible fact–some of these kids essentially work for the United States. Gettleman’s piece looks at child soldiers who fight, not for al-Shabaab but for the TFG. The U.S. provides aid, including pay for soldiers’ salaries and presumably weapons, to an organization that actively uses child soldiers.
This is a horrible situation. President Obama and officials at the State Department have acknowledged and regret that we are supporting child soldiers. Senator Russ Feingold argues that we should suspend security assistance to the TFG until the use of child soldiers stops. Beyond the obvious tragedy of using children in war, this undermines the authority of the United States. Foreign intervention is viewed with a great deal of skepticism in Somalia, but a foreign power that is literally putting Somalia’s children in harm’s way is not going to be viewed favorably by the locals or the world community at large. It is certainly not going to give the local population any reason to trust the U.S. The U.S. publicly condemns the use of child soldiers yet pays them in Somalia, a blatant hypocrisy. What do we do about all of this?
The U.S. has hung its hopes on the impotent TFG, a group that has proven time and time again to be ineffective. The TFG holds only a few blocks of Mogadishu and manages to hold that largely due to the presence of about 6000 African Union troops. It is time for a radical game change in Somalia.
First, the U.S. must abandon the idea of a centralized Somali state. Clan divisions alone have proven hard to overcome and are enough to undermine a central government. Instead we should support a confederal system, a collection of regional governments with a central government limited to very specific functions. These smaller regional governments need not be divided along clan lines. Smaller regional governing bodies would allow for greater local autonomy and more cooperation among those who live in close proximity to each other, and eliminate some of the conflict that exists in the current national system.
Second, if the U.S. is going to back a Somali group it should be Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaah, a Sufi paramilitary group that is opposed to radical Islam. They have been the most effective in combating al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam. The TFG should be disbanded or alter its mission to that of community and humanitarian support, dispensing food, medicine and other logistical tasks.
Third, there needs to be a humanitarian surge; our actions cannot only be military in nature. The Somali people have enough distrust of foreign intervention that military intervention itself will not be enough to win any hearts or minds. There needs to be an organized and accountable relief effort. To avoid some of the pitfalls of the 1990s, this relief effort needs to be backed up by a military force from the African Union.
Fourth, the moderate Islamists need to be won over. Just as there are meetings between government officials and moderate members of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the moderate Islamists in Somalia need incentives to work with us.
A strong military effort by Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaah and AU forces, tactical support from the U.S., plus organized humanitarian effort will help stabilize the country; it will not solve all of Somalia’s problems but it will be a drastic improvement. Stability is a prerequisite to any type of nation-building in Somalia, therefore stability should be our first priority.
There is much that could go wrong with the scenario I have outlined, but what is abundantly clear is that the status quo is not working. Somalia has been the poster child for failed states for over twenty years and it is time to rethink our strategy. Somalia should be a country in which children are given lunch and an education rather than an AK-47 and an extra clip courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. The most radical and experimental ideas are not out of bounds when it comes to Somalia. Our current policy is not working and it is far past time to try something, anything, new.