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Somalia, US, and the Dual-Track Letdown

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Somalia in particular and Horn of Africa in general are at such a volatile stage that any misstep -- domestic or foreign -- could only further exacerbate that perilous condition. One such potential misstep gathering cloud is the recently proposed US foreign policy toward Somalia known as the Dual-Track approach.

First, a brief background: In 2006 -- over a decade after the infamous "Black-Hawk Down" incident that caused Somalia and the US to drift apart -- the US has shown renewed interest in Somalia. As a result, in recent years, the US has led donor nations in generosity. Notwithstanding the fact that roughly ninety percent of the over $200 million it donated to Somalia being earmarked to AMISOM -- the African Union troops there to enforce peace.

Second, since the historic Cairo Speech, the anticipation was high in Somalia as it was in other parts of the Islamic world that the Obama administration would finally do away with that all too familiar foreign policy based on the global war on terror. And, for almost two years, while the US inter-agencies debated what the new policy toward Somalia would be, there was a growing sense of hope that the new administration would conscientiously craft a policy "based on mutual respect, and mutual interest".

Then, all of a sudden, there appeared the Dual-Track approach!

In a nutshell, this policy is based on engaging diplomatically and economically any and all Somali political actors -- armed or unarmed -- as long as those entities are not supporting the extremist group al-Shabaab. Even if these actors are overtly or covertly opposed to the TFG.

Understandably, the impetus driving this new policy is the impatience caused by the rapid change of Somalia's security landscape in the past two decades. In addition to the growing violent extremism, there is the transnational threat of piracy, arms smuggling, human and drug trafficking. Needless to say that these threats are further complicated by the slow progress of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in building a robust security apparatus, and broadening its territorial control.

But, in an apparent effort to adapt its security and strategic needs to the reality on the ground, the US seems to have inadvertently stepped into a clan minefield that could cause it, and indeed the TFG, significant political setback and long-term threat.

And while providing economic incentive and the prestige of diplomatic engagement might generally lure or charm interest groups, in clan-centric communities that understand federalism only through the prism of the dominant clan's right to control resources and hoard power, it's likely to have an adverse effect.

And while this is a "US policy made in Washington" it is hard to ignore how it closely resembles another failed approach to Somalia.

Neighboring Ethiopia has unsuccessfully been pursuing almost a similar policy for two decades. It did not succeed, because, on one hand, it undermined the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Somali state; and on the other, as a result of the zero-sum competition that exists between clans, it was sowing seeds of division, marginalization, and hate that perpetuated violence and chaos.

While it still retains friendly relations with the TFG, Ethiopia has unilaterally been engaging "Somaliland" and "Puntland" in all diplomatic, military and economic fronts as if these two political entities have the absolute autonomy to frame their respective foreign, defense, and monitory policies that are independent of Somalia.

Make no mistake, Somaliland and Puntland had legitimate grievances that compelled them to explore drastic secessionist and semi-secessionist options. They have taken their matters into their own hands and since became success stories that should make all Somalis proud. Both have established semblance of peace in the North-Western and North-Eastern regions. On the other hand, their actions have lend a façade of authenticity to the so-called "building blocks approach" that some special interest groups were adamantly pushing in the past two decades.

The deriving premise of that approach is based on an ill-conceived notion that Somalia could never sustain itself as a nation-state, and that its people can only coexist as clan-based enclaves that are independent of each other. The failure of the state, according to these groups, is irreversibly permanent.

So, can these clan-based building blocks ensure sustainable security and stability?

Clan demarcations are intertwined both in Somaliland and Puntland where distrust and territorial dispute have kept these two successful communities apart. And even more complex dynamics exist in the recently formed Hiranland; and soon to come -- should this trend continues -- Jubaland, and Banadirland. And, a preview of the new violence that is likely to ignite in each is already playing out in Puntland.

Back to the Dual-Track approach; one of the most detrimental obstacles that would face this approach would come from the regional-based partners' unwillingness to participate in positive engagement on matters of mutual interest or collaborative coexistence with the next door free floating political entity. Any skeptic would only have to review the Somaliland and Puntland's record of collaboration in the many years that each was operating independent of the Somali government.

In conclusion: If there is any indication that the best bulwark against the spread of violent extremism in Somalia is found through fragments of clannish polities and regions that function independent of the state, then both the US and Somalia ought to shout 'Eureka!' in unison. But that is hardly the case.

Already these regions are expecting pigeonholed security schemes and safe zones under the command of various dominant clans in partnership with contracted private security companies (who are accountable to no one.) And this, needless to say, would only prove to be the best recruitment campaign for al-Shabaab.

If this dual-track approach promises any hope, it is found in the words of Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, when he said in his presentation on this policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies "...we decide what to do, we don't base our decisions on what Ethiopia might think is appropriate and we'll reserve the right to change this policy whenever we want".
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Abukar Arman is Somalia's Special Envoy to the United States.