From: Biniam Tekle (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Tue Dec 22 2009 - 22:21:11 EST
military scenario leaves engagement as only option
- Last Updated: December 22. 2009 8:03PM UAE / December 22. 2009 4:03PM
At the beginning of this year, Somalia was experiencing a rare moment of
optimism. The desperate country looked as if it might just start to turn
itself around. The disastrous Ethiopian invasion and two-year occupation
were ending, and the new president of the transitional federal government,
Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, had broad Somali and international support. The
hope was that he would be able to form coalitions with other moderate
Islamists and isolate the extremist al Shabaab elements.
Now, at the end of the same year, all traces of optimism are gone. The civil
war is increasingly brutal and destructive. Almost half of the population,
3.6 million people, are dependent on food aid, and half a million refugees
are scattered across the Horn of Africa.
Sheikh Sharif’s government forces control only a few city blocks of the
capital Mogadishu. International efforts to prop up his side, including
military training, US arms shipments and cash, have not been effective, but
abandoning the transitional government now would hasten an al Shabaab
The only thing preventing that is the 5,000-strong African Union
peacekeeping force, AMISOM. The hope is that in the long run the
transitional government’s newly trained troops will change the balance of
forces, but the government lacks the command and control structures to
utilise those forces effectively. Regardless, military might is hardly the
solution for Somalia.
Unable to conquer the capital, al Shabaab instead has carried out a series
of assassinations and suicide attacks targeting AMISOM and government
leaders. The latest attack on December 3 killed 20 people, including three
government ministers, two journalists, one doctor and a dozen medical
students, and left 60 others injured.
In short, no side in Somalia has a determinative strategic military
advantage. Every faction – the transitional government, al Shabaab, the
group Hisbul Islam, led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former ally of
Sheikh Sharif and later of al Shabaab, and countless shifting clan interests
– has fundamental weaknesses and is incapable of uniting even its own
members, let alone the country.
The government and its international backers are preparing a new offensive,
and al Shabaab is reinforcing its position. But no one in Somalia or abroad
has been able to achieve anything except a continuation of the miserable
Finding a way out of such long-term anarchy is fraught with difficulties,
and even getting to the beginnings of a viable peace process would be a
gargantuan diplomatic task. Still, some elements of a solution are clear.
The involvement of both Eritrea and Ethiopia on opposing sides – the
insurgents and the transitional government respectively – amounts to a proxy
war in their struggle over their disputed border. Binding rulings by the
international Boundary Commission need to be implemented so that both
countries disengage from Somalia.
The role of Arab countries – Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – is also
important, because of their potential to act as mediators or spoilers in any
peace process. US policy in Somalia has to broaden its narrow focus on
short-term counter-terrorism to long-term stability that makes terrorism
less attractive and less likely.
But most importantly, Somali leaders and their international friends have to
start in earnest what they should have begun a year ago, in the more hopeful
days of Sheikh Sharif’s tenure. They must foster an engagement process, led
by the Somalis themselves, capable of forging a broad domestic consensus –
similar to the models of the more peaceful regions of Somaliland and
Puntland – with the first job being to create a list of neutral mediators
and possible interlocutors from the insurgents’ ranks.
The international community has to completely rethink its approach to make
this work, fostering support for a political process rather than any
specific political actors or predetermined outcomes. Rather than reflexively
refusing to deal with al Shabaab, it must recognise that the insurgency is a
loose coalition and many elements could be safely brought into the
government, while isolating the small, irreconcilable group of hard-core
There is no guarantee that it would work, of course. Somalia has been good
at defying solutions over the years. But if the only other option is further
violence in a no-win military stalemate, it seems the right time to get back
to the negotiating table.
*Andrew Stroehlein is the communications director of the International
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