The Perils of Intervening in Somalia

The current attention on Somalia's pirates and the reports of youth from Minnesota traveling to Somalia to fight in the jihad forces us to focus on a country that the US often ignores. The challenge is that no one really knows what to do to help foster peace or how to do it. And while there are plenty of ideas, there is little consensus from Somalis.

Americans may remember Black Hawk Down, but for Somalis the events that brought further violence in 2006 and 2007 are fresher. In 2006, America backed warlords on surprisingly uninformed intelligence. And as this strategy appeared to be failing, the US helped Somalia's long-time nemesis, Ethiopia, to oust the popular leader of the Islamic Courts Union, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, accusing him of being too radical. The same Sheikh Sharif is now president of Somalia after his predecessor, Abdullahi Yusuf, proved unable to create a viable government.

In recent months Ethiopian troops have pulled out but the intervention of Ethiopia (which in the region is seen as a US-proxy) has further destabilized the country and radicalized the politics. American and British Somalis have been drawn to fight the jihad against the invaders. This is not a new war. Ethiopia is seen by many Somalis as a Christian colonizer seeking to extend its empire to the sea. Ethiopians on the other hand regard Somalia, and many of the Islamist leaders within it, as having a project to create a greater Somalia that would include significant portions of Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. The two countries have fought several wars in the past making the most recent conflict a magnet for galvanizing Somali nationalism.

International collaboration and mutual understanding are key, as Somalia's concerns are best addressed from a Somali perspective. Sheikh Sharif's major task is consolidating power as he only controls a section of Mogadishu and part of south-central Somalia. His greatest challenge for security is not the pirates but al-Shabab and other extremist groups that have been strengthened by the Ethiopian invasion. I have argued previously on this blog that the US should support Sheikh Sharif. But this is a delicate and challenging position for his international backers.

Outright and public US support risks delegitimizing him domestically and can weaken his position. This was part of the problem that faced Abdullahi Yusuf. He appeared exactly as he was: an Ethiopian/US backed leader with a weak domestic constituency. Similarly, this has been part of the failure of the many internationally crafted governments that preceded his presidency. After elaborate and extensive meetings in Nairobi or Djibouti, not only have these governments been reluctant to leave five star hotels but also there is little or no local ownership.

In contrast, the northern part of Somalia, the self-declared republic of Somaliland, has become relatively stable and democratic. Somaliland has successfully established its own constitutional democracy, held peaceful elections, repaired much of its damaged infrastructure and repatriated hundreds of thousands of refugees. This was achieved without external intervention but rather through a lengthy process of inclusive conferences with clan leaders. Many would argue that Somaliland's success is precisely because of the lack of major external interference.

While not exactly transferable, Somaliland's demobilization and demilitarization process suggests some insights. This was a locally driven initiative where the fighters from the Somali National Movement that once armed their neighbors went door to door to take large arms away. While Somalilanders were disarming, the robust UN and aid presence in south created a lucrative market for security. So while Kalashnikovs were losing their value in the north, in the south they were a guarantee for a salary.

Many Somalilanders argue that their peace process and stable government have succeeded because it was not externally driven but rather locally owned. In Somaliland citizens refer to themselves as "hostages of peace" to indicate the extensive efforts they made to bring stability in their country and their reluctance to resort to violence and jeopardize political settlements they struggled for. Conflict is still an issue and, because of internal political disagreements, the situation is particularly tense at the moment. But crucially there are traditional and local mechanisms for dealing with this. Given the enormity of the task Sheikh Sharif faces in crafting a viable government, he and his international supporters may be able to draw some lessons from the north of the country. At a minimum, renewed international interest in Somalia calls for carefully calibrated and coordinated engagement with the current government in Mogadishu, along with regional power bases.