A recent editorial in the Washington Post that calls for policymakers and the American public to take a hard look at how to prevent Somalia from becoming a terrorist haven left out an essential piece of the puzzle—the importance of putting the safety and welfare of Somali civilians at the front and center of U.S. policy.
Somalia, the Post argued, could become the next Afghanistan if the U.S. does not increase military support for the transitional Somali government to combat the militant Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab.
What’s needed is a complementary and concerted effort to bolster the Somali government and its army, so that it is able to turn back al-Shabab and extend its authority across the country. (…) Somalia is not a country the United States and its allies can ignore or treat merely with missile strikes. As in Afghanistan before 2001, the mounting threat of terrorist organizations, and their potential to strike far beyond the horn of Africa, are apparent. The indelible lesson of Sept. 11, 2001, is that they must be countered aggressively.
The Post’s warning comes after al-Shabaab’s public rhetoric has been increasingly bellicose in the past few weeks. Most recently, Israel was added to the list of al-Shabaab’s declared targets, which also includes Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Eritrea, Ghana, Sudan and Uganda.
Though the Post is right to highlight the potential terrorist threat emanating from Somalia, it misses the most relevant point of comparison between Afghanistan and Somalia—the conclusion, made by the force commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, that the centerpiece to an effective counterinsurgency strategy must be the protection of civilians. Of Afghanistan, General McChrstyal’s has said:
Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent forces; our objective must be the population…Gaining their support will require a better understanding of the people’s choices and needs. However, progress is hindered by the dual threat of a resilient insurgency and a crisis of confidence in the government and the international coalition. To win their support, we must protect the people from both of these threats.
What is true in Afghanistan is no less true in Somalia. Just two weeks ago, a U.N. representative gave an alarming report on the human rights and humanitarian situation in Somalia and declared that the international community is failing ordinary Somalis. He also called attention to sexual violence in IDP camps, calling the levels of gang rape “unacceptably high.”
It is disappointing, then, that the Post utterly fails to address the need to protect civilians and reduce humanitarian suffering. As in Afghanistan, the weak and ineffectual Somali government is not an ideal partner. Expanded military support may help extend its authority beyond a few city blocks of Mogadishu, but the situation for civilians will hardly improve if one unaccountable and abusive armed group replaces another. As in Afghanistan, this will not be enough to win over the hearts and minds of a civilian population that cannot find peace and security in homes that have become battlegrounds or camps that are supposed to provide refuge from violence.
There are a couple of concrete steps that the Obama administration could take immediately to help end atrocities and improve humanitarian conditions. First, the U.S. should support accountability for the crimes against humanity committed by all parties to the conflict. As a permanent member of the Security Council, the U.S. can end the current culture of impunity by calling for a U.N. Commission of Inquiry that will investigate and document atrocities that are and have been committed against civilians and make recommendations for how to hold perpetrators to account.
Second, the U.S. should work with the Kenyan government and the U.N. to improve conditions for the 280,000 Somalis in Dadaab, Kenya—the world’s largest refugee camp. If the deplorable living conditions were not bad enough, Human Rights Watch reported in a recent press release that the Kenyan government has directly supported the recruitment of refugees from Dadaab to fight for the Somali government—completely undermining the purpose of these camps: to provide a conflict-free safe haven.
The indelible lesson of 9/11 is not, as prescribed by the Post, to aggressively counter al-Shabaab, but to embrace a new counterterrorism approach that places civilians first. Somali civilians have borne the corrosive brunt of war for the past 19 years. U.S. strategy must move beyond the occasional special forces raid in Somalia toward an engagement that prioritizes the protection and welfare of Somali civilians.
Colin Thomas-Jensen contributed to this post.
Photo: Displaced women and children in Somalia.