In facing disturbing political developments in Somalia, FSM Contributing Editor J. Peter Pham considers the importance of diplomatic tools and American involvement in stabilizing an explosive region.
J. Peter Pham, Ph.D
Last week, I began this “Tale of Two Cities” by pointing to the danger inherent in confusing real effectiveness for the juridical fiction of international diplomatic recognition. Specifically, I argued that putting too much stock—and, in this case, almost any confidence is overreaching—in the reliability of the so-called “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) of Somalia, a ragtag outfit camped out (at least at the time of this writing) in the town of Baidoa, as an ally in what may prove to be the inevitable battle against the Islamist radicals: Those who have seized control of Mogadishu and seem poised, even eager, to transform it into the fashionable pied-à-terre for global jihadi terrorists who haven’t already found a home there (like Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Saleh Ali Salih Nabhan, and Abu Taha al-Sudani, who are wanted for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania as well as 2002 attacks on Israeli civilians in Kenya).
Now I want to turn my attention to the flipside of that dangerous fiction and another town in the former Somalia. If there is grave risk in making believe a potential ally is worth anything just because he or she enjoys the benefits of international legal recognition, there is equal if not greater danger in failing to appreciate another potential partner’s attributes just because he or she may lack that little bit of diplomatic cover.
This is the tale of Hargeysa, the capital of former British Somaliland Protectorate which achieved its independence in 1960 a full week before the former Italian colony of Somalia, entered into a disastrous (and for Somalilanders, quasi-genocidal) union with its larger relation, and, on May 18, 1991, as the rest of the former Somali Democratic Republic collapsed into a ruin from which it has yet to emerge, reasserted its sovereign independence as the Republic of Somaliland.
As I have previously noted, Somaliland’s trajectory since has been nothing if not extraordinary, being characterized by both social stability and democratic politics—the northern region’s progress standing in stark contrast to the free fall of the rest of the former Somalia. And despite being cut off from international financial institutions, direct bilateral assistance, and other sources of development and investment capital—all for want of diplomatic recognition—the Somalilanders have rebuilt Hargeysa, which was leveled during the Siad Barre regime’s brutal campaign against them, and resettled close to one million of their displaced citizens. All of this has been done on remittances from the diaspora and the paltry $35 million that the government makes each year on transshipments from the port of Berbera to landlocked neighboring Ethiopia.
Needless to say, Somaliland’s success has attracted the ire of both the ineffectual TFG in Baidoa and the Islamists in Mogadishu who repulsed both by its democratic constitution—Sheikh Hassan Dahir ‘Aweys, head of the Islamists’ majlis al-shura, has pronounced democracy “contrary to Islamic teachings” and “anti-Islam”—as well as the prominent role that women play in its politics (the foreign minister of the government in Hargeysa, for example, is a woman, Edna Adan Ismail).
The Islamist threat to Somaliland is existential, not theoretical. In 2003-2004, the same extremists who are now ensconced in Mogadishu purposely targeted four foreign aid workers in Somaliland. Last September, Somaliland’s security services managed to foil a plot by the same radicals to disrupt the parliamentary poll by attacking voting stations and killing the seventy-six international observers, including seven Americans led by retired Ambassador Lange Schermerhorn. Fourteen of the terrorists have already been tried and convicted by Somaliland courts and a number of others have been taken into custody.
With this record, one would have thought Somaliland would be a natural ally for the U.S. and the international community in their efforts not only to contain the Islamists in Mogadishu, but also to orchestrate regional counterterrorism efforts. Alas, Somaliland is not yet recognized and hence does not figure into the perspective of those who prefer form over substance.
Meanwhile, the Somalilanders in Hargeysa are left to their own not-inconsiderable ingenuity while resources from the International Contact Group and others flows to the make-believe “government” in Baidoa that would have a hard time making a case that it was even the effective municipal authority of that provincial town. This last, rather inconvenient fact did not, of course stand in the way the UN Security Council from having its president for July, Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sablière of France, read out a statement last Friday reaffirming the TFG and its grain warehouse kaffeeklatsch of a “parliament” as “the internationally recognized authorities to restore peace, stability and governance to Somalia.” One should not be surprised by the surrealism of the whole exercise when one considers that the habitués of Turtle Bay hardly batted an eye when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed François Lonseny Fall, the discarded prime ministerial puppet of General Lansana Conté of Guinea—itself a country well on its way to failed state status—as the world body’s chief envoy for Somalia, arguably the most failed state on the planet.
The entire story has all the makings of an opera buffa, except the very real specter of global jihadi terrorism renders it more akin to a Greek tragedy where the obstinate refusal to look beyond certain conventions—in this case the “non-recognition” of Somaliland and the “recognition” of the TFG—condemns many of the characters to disaster.
In the interest of avoiding that fate for the peoples of Somaliland and Somalia, their neighbors, and the international community, I suggest that American policymakers pursue the following courses of action to address the security challenge at hand, at least in the short and intermediate terms as a more coherent long-term strategy towards the Horn of Africa is crafted:
First, we need to get beyond increasingly abstract discussions about “international recognition” and down to the concrete question of whether or not there is any utility in keeping the TFG’s life support going (I happen to think that the patient should have been pronounced terminal some time ago, but perhaps someone else might be able to turn up signs of life). In the event that there is some use in supporting the TFG, the U.S. should make clear to “President” Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmad and such followers as he may still have that American support for the TFG’s “sovereignty” extends only as far as the TFG can make its heretofore entirely notional authority respected. The TFG needs to be disabused of any delusions that America supports any of its irredentist claims to the territory of Somaliland or is going to back its charade of claiming international standing.
Our only interest as Americans in supporting the gang in Baidoa at all is only insofar as it proves itself to be useful to our interests in general and effective as a counterweight to the Islamist radicals in Mogadishu in particular. Certainly we should expect that any assistance we choose to give will not be used by the TFG to undermine the one stable part of the former Somalia, Somaliland. If we provide the TFG with any support at all, it ought to be with this condition attached as well as the clear understanding that we expect results and will not hesitate to pull the plug on Baidoa should it not be found wanting in either respect for our preconditions or general effectiveness.
Second, the U.S. should somehow find the mechanism to help the government in Hargeysa build up its capacity to defend itself—and, indirectly, others—from the terrorist and other radical threats emanating from the rest of the former Somalia. I’d prefer direct engagement to build long-term ties, but could live with American resources getting where they need to go through some other channel, including private military companies.
The government of Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin stretches its meager resources quite far, but it faces an almost overwhelming task of securing almost 1400 kilometers of land borders, including 500 kilometers directly opposite the Islamists in Somalia, with its logistically challenged and under-armed army (in contrast, as I have noted before, the Islamists are armed to the teeth). The Somaliland coast guard, under the Ministry of the Interior, has precisely three speedboats to patrol some 900 kilometers of coastline (not that I’d underestimate the effectiveness of the crews considering that this year alone they have stopped 184 Arab jihadis headed for Somalia). And Somaliland has a good intelligence service—the foiled terrorist campaign during the parliamentary election last year was only one recent triumph—but it lacks communications and other equipment that would increase its effectiveness.
Somaliland is an eager supporter in its region of America’s counterterrorism efforts, going so far as to offer U.S. forces the use of the Cold War-era American facilities at Berbera on the Gulf of Aden. This offer may be critical in giving us a full range of options, especially since Foreign Minister Mahmud Yusuf of Djibouti—where the nearest U.S. forces, the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, is based—told the London-based al-Sharq al-Aswat newspaper that America will not be allowed to use the base in his country to take military action against the Islamist militants in Mogadishu.
In short, even aside from the moral imperatives of our national principles and commitments which ought to dispose us to look with sympathy on Somaliland’s struggle for recognition of its democratically expressed self-determination, in a global war on terror where we are reduced to often buying “coalitions of the willing,” why wouldn’t the U.S. support a friendly secular democracy that is already voluntarily fighting America’s enemies?
United States policy in the Horn of Africa needs to jettison the fictions, juridical and otherwise, that will bring nothing but disappointment in their wake. Our policy choices, while informed by America’s ideals, should be driven by a realist concern for her interests that measures results by privileging effectiveness and rewarding positive progress. A war on terror is no place for wishful flights of fancy, much less potentially lethal fictions.
Courtesy of: FamilySecurityMatters.org