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U.S. at a Crossroads in Somalia

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U.S. at a Crossroads in Somalia

Posted by Laura Heaton on April 14, 2009

U.S. at a Crossroads in Somalia

The Obama administration’s stated goal to break with the Bush administration’s approach to counter-terrorism faces an early test in Somalia, and an intense debate over how to address the threat of terrorism and piracy emanating from Somalia is playing out in an ongoing policy review. While Somalia presents its own set of unique challenges, the discussions over strategy are occurring in the context of a broader foreign policy conundrum: How will the Obama administration deal with perceived threats in weak and collapsed states where the United States lacks a capable partner?

There are a number of global hotspots where the Bush administration’s counterterrorism approach seemed to have made matters worse, not better, and Somalia is perhaps the poster child of this phenomenon. In Somalia from 2006 to 2008, the Bush administration chose to partner with Ethiopia, a historic rival of Somalia, in attempts to destroy the shabaab militia, which has been affiliated with al-Qaeda. However, the missile strikes employed by the Bush administration were often a blunt instrument causing collateral damage and feeding a nationalist backlash. Any kind of hearts and minds strategy was noticeably absent. As Ken Menkhaus noted in a strategy paper for Enough:

Thousands of Somalis became radicalized by their treatment at the hands of the TFG and Ethiopian forces, and, despite deep misgivings about the insurgents’ indiscriminate use of violence, became either active or passive supporters of the increasingly violent shabaab and other armed groups.

Two recent stories out of Somalia, namely the recent rash of pirate hijackings and the reported expansion of terrorist training camps – unrelated for now – have again brought the discussion of U.S. military strikes to the forefront of the policy debate.

Of course, the Somali pirate drama that ended on Sunday when U.S. Navy SEAL snipers fired on the three pirates holding the captain of the Maersk Alabama hostage has set off a barrage of arguments both for and against targeting the pirates’ inland bases with strikes. Most administration officials commenting (albeit anonymously) on the prospect of attacks on the pirate bases seem to be erring on the side of caution and acknowledging that, for now, the pirates don’t seem to have any larger political aims. Planning for a military response is undoubtedly ongoing, but this is to be expected — the president will want to consider every option and is under pressure to act from people justifiably outraged by the piracy epidemic. And so far President Obama has remained (intentionally?) ambiguous about his preferred tactics: "To achieve that goal, we must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for their crimes," he said in a statement. What’s missing from these words is an acknowledgment of the bigger picture: piracy off Somalia’s coast is in many ways a byproduct of statelessness and lawlessness on land.  A military quick fix is temporary at best, and potentially counter-productive. As U.S. military officials acknowledge, this week’s operation against the pirates is already viewed as an escalation that may have violent consequences.

U.S. Senator Russ Feingold got it about right in his statement on the situation in Somalia:

While the episode involving the crew of the Maersk Alabama had a happy ending, piracy off the coast of Somalia will assuredly continue since it is a symptom of the state collapse in Somalia, which presents a much greater and more dangerous problem… We must commit to a comprehensive strategy that helps stabilize the country while also establishing effective governance and the rule of law.

This piece in the Washington Post on Saturday highlights the ongoing debate within the administration about the merits of renewed U.S. strikes on shabaab training camps. This is an evolution of earlier stories that noted a number of young Somali Americans had returned to Somalia to fight with the shabaab, raising concerns they might also be engaged in planning for transnational terror attacks. Some at the Pentagon have complained that the ongoing policy review has prevented the administration from taking urgent military action. Others feel there are some intermediary steps to take — like conditioned support for Somalia’s fragile transitional government — and see the administration’s review as a chance to break with the Bush administration’s policies and take a more comprehensive approach to the challenge of weak states and transnational threats such as terrorism and piracy.

With these recent developments, the administration’s Somalia policy is in the spotlight with renewed urgency. However, given the complex array of considerations on the ground — a new, fragile, transitional government; widespread poverty; and a long history of failed external intervention, to name a few — it seems clear that Somalia demands far more than a purely military solution.

John Norris and Colin Thomas-Jensen contributed to this post.