Incisive, Principled Analysis of Global Conflicts

Somalia: Revisiting Afghanistan’s Failed Policy?
By Michael Shank & Khadija Ali

August 13, 2006
From Afghanistan to Latin America, recent history suggests that the US policy of funding militias that operate outside a national government structure has negative long- and short-term consequences. The militias are difficult to control and they do not have a vested interest in adhering to US requests. Furthermore, these militias can operate counter to majority or at least plurality sentiment and by their behavior can lead to a backlash by the populace against both the militia and their backers — namely the US.

Take Afghanistan for example. In 1979, the CIA and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence’s priming of Afghan factions with cash, weapons and training after the Soviet invasion helped create an environment where a population was militarized, radicalized and left ripe for takeover and manipulation by the Taleban and eventually, after the Soviet retreat, Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

The Afghan experience shows that it is easy to provide funds and weapons to militias for short-term actions, but much harder to retain their loyalty and ensure that at some future date their actions do not run counter to the interests of the sponsoring state. Case in point with Afghanistan: The 9/11 Commission now recommends renewing the effort to secure Afghanistan, “disarm militias, and curtail the age of warlord rule,” a seeming acknowledgement that militarized local security forces and militias can create a destabilizing environment that can cause long-term security problems.

Disturbingly, there are signs that this failed policy is being employed again in Somalia.

Since 9/11, security analysts were fearful that Al-Qaeda, largely displaced from Afghanistan, sought out Somalia as a safe haven.

And the fact that Somalia is, using every available indicator, a failed or, at a minimum, failing state only added to the concern of US analysts. Fresh from the lesson of Afghanistan that a state without a strong central government is ripe for takeover by a parasitic terror group, they feared a reprise in Somalia.

Five years later, something like what happened in Afghanistan occurred again in Somalia. US-funded warlords operated without majority support and duped the Defense Department with their Al-Qaeda-hunting schemes.

Banding together to form the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism, the warlords suggested they were responding to Al-Qaeda incursions into Mogadishu. Consequently, locals who refused to acquiesce to warlord orders risked being framed by the warlords and subsequently the US as Al-Qaeda operatives.

These tactics by the US had deleterious effects. The transitional government of Somalia was rendered ineffective in part because the US funded the warlords directly and not the government. In response, prominent business leaders in Mogadishu funded the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) to bring order to the capital city — something the warlords never could do.

Stories now abound of Western fears that we may see the emergence of a theocratic Taleban-like regime in this troubled part of Eastern Africa. Needless to say, US requests for Islamic Courts’ help in handing over terror suspects in addition to a possible redoubling of US support for the warlords only strengthens the likelihood of extremist ideology. Fresh off the success of evicting CIA-backed warlords, however, the UIC now has the popular support of Mogadishu.

Less extortion, safer streets, and cheaper goods are convincing residents that the UIC is genuinely concerned about its people. Over a dozen Court Councils successfully enforce security in Mogadishu, the capital city.

While a short-term recalibration of US policy does not seem likely, the recent development and the movement in Mogadishu led by the UIC, the business community and the civil society has to be encouraged.

Ignoring the movement as a force to reckon with will further radicalize some of its members. The participation of the civil society and the business community in this movement helps shield the Somali peace process from a hijacking by any group with a hidden agenda.

The US government and the United Nations should seize this opportunity to support the Somali government’s engagement of the UIC in order to advance the Somali peace process.

With the recent sacking of Cabinet ministers by President Yusuf, the Somali transitional government and the UIC need a major international commitment to shift Somalia out of its current failed state status. Now Somalia needs the US and the UN to reach out to the government in Baidoa and the UIC in Mogadishu to determine what it requires. Instead of backing one armed faction over another, the US should help lead an international effort focused on assisting the Somali peace building process with economic and political support.

Michael Shank is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Khadija Ali, former member of the Somali Transitional National Parliament and a minister of state at the Transitional National Government from 2000 to 2002, is also a Ph.D. student at the Institute of Conflict Analysis & Resolution and is presently in Mogadishu, Somalia.