Old Front Against Terrorism


Jan 14, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune on January 14, 2007.

It would be premature to portray Ethiopia's swift defeat of the Islamist forces in Somalia as a victory in the global war on terror. The December invasion blunted the immediate threat of Somalia's takeover by Islamist hard-liners. Al-Qaeda fugitives who found sanctuary in Somalia are again on the run. The internationally recognized but thus far ineffectual transitional federal government has been restored. There is now an opportunity to begin rebuilding Somalia from the ground up.

But as America has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult to translate quick initial success on the battlefield into concrete political gain. It took the United States and its Afghan allies just over two months to scatter the Taliban in 2001. It took a mere 21 days to topple Saddam Hussein and disperse his army in 2003. Yet five years later, 40,000 American and NATO troops confront an escalating insurgency in Afghanistan, while 140,000 American men and women remain in Iraq in a conflict there that has now lasted as long as American participation in World War II.

President Bush declared the mission accomplished in Iraq before it really was, and America greeted the initial defeat of the Taliban as the end of old problems rather than the beginning of new ones.

The mission in Somalia is not yet accomplished. The battle for control of the impoverished African nation will enter a new phase but almost certainly continue.

Ethiopia's easy march to drive the Islamists out of Mogadishu on Dec. 28 and their last redoubt in Kismayo on Jan. 1 suggests anything but military victory. The radical Islamists, calling themselves the Council of Islamic Courts, advised their fighters to abandon the battlefields and disperse to their villages to prepare for jihad. Many of the Islamists followed this advice.

This sounds like a replay of what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. The defeated forces of the Taliban and Hussein melted into the civilian population to fight another day rather than face certain destruction in dramatic last stands.

Al-Qaeda's propaganda will portray Ethiopia's triumph as an invasion of Somalia by Christian-led and locally hated Ethiopians, openly supported by the United States. It will say the invasion replaced devout Muslim judges with the same rapacious warlords who have already proved unable to govern Somalia or even survive without foreign intervention. These statements are pretty accurate.

In fact, U.S. airstrikes Sunday against suspected al-Qaeda operatives in southern Somalia will be used by al-Qaeda as confirmation of its propaganda line that the transitional government is simply an American puppet.

The statement by transitional President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed on Tuesday that “the Americans had a right to carry out the air strikes on some al-Qaeda members” was exactly what al-Qaeda wanted to hear. Al-Qaeda can now assert that jihad against the re-installed transitional government and any international force protecting it is jihad against America.

For more than 15 years, al-Qaeda's leadership has sought to exploit Somalia's conflicts. Osama bin Laden saw America's military intervention – to escort and deliver international food aid to alleviate famine – in Somalia in 1992, coming on the heels of the deployment of American forces to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, as part of an infidel scheme to control the region. Bin Laden sent al-Qaeda veterans from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen to Somalia to help train local fighters. One of the skills they passed on was how to bring down helicopters.

It is still not entirely clear whether al-Qaeda operatives or local fighters trained by al-Qaeda shot down the two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu in October 1993. Years later, bin Laden publicly claimed credit, recalling the 1983 destruction of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1993 battle of Mogadishu to remind his followers that “the Americans are a paper tiger” who will promptly withdraw if attacked by determined foes.

Bin Laden continues to communicate. To reinforce perceptions that he remains in charge of a global jihadist enterprise, he draws attention to conflicts from Timor to Darfur, calling the faithful to arms, warning infidels of the consequences of Western intervention. If attacks subsequently occur, it appears that they were orchestrated by al-Qaeda. In July 2006, bin Laden warned Washington and the international community against sending forces to Somalia.

Washington has tended to see Somalia as bin Laden would wish to portray it – another front in the global jihad. Concern that local lawlessness would offer a new base for al-Qaeda is legitimate, but it is also a dangerous simplification, one encouraged by viewing local events exclusively through the lens of the global war on terrorism. This global war led the United States to back Somalia's warlords with cash, weapons and training as part of a counterterrorism project, although the effort did not prevent retreat of the warlords before the Islamist forces.

Somalia's Council of Islamic Courts was never a mere affiliate of al-Qaeda. The courts themselves comprised a network of Islamic judges. Initially set up to administer local justice, they were very much an outgrowth of the chaotic conditions that prevailed in the absence of any government. They voted out harsh sentences to villains and violators of Islamic law. They even started to take on the pirates who infest Somalia's coastal waters.

Resistance to Ethiopian occupation or any other foreign presence will find ample local and foreign support. Ethiopia's historic enemy Eritrea, whose fighters were already in Somalia, will not easily accept Ethiopian hegemony. Sudan will see a continuing conflict and demand for international intervention in Somalia as a way to delay international intervention in Darfur. Iran, which supported al-Qaeda's first forays into Somalia, will see strategic opportunities. Syria reportedly has already transported foreign fighters to assist the Islamic Courts. Hezbollah has helped with training.

Security is Somalia's most urgent need, but who will provide it? The Ethiopians will want to avoid getting bogged down in Somalia's endless violence. They do not see pacification as their responsibility and have already indicated that they are getting out. Few other countries will sign up to relieve them. Some discreet military involvement may be necessary, but it is not in the U.S. national interest to send in American combat units, even if they were available to send. Token forces to protect humanitarian aid are a bad idea because they would be easy targets.

To jihadists, fighting provides its own rewards. They “win” by making their foes' situation untenable. The military lesson we take from Iraq's insurgency applies here. It is easier to create mayhem than prevent it.

The best hope may be to cobble together a Somali government of national reconciliation that incorporates some of the dispersed Islamic Courts along with influential clan elders and the more effective warlords. Local accommodations rather than grand constitutional projects will have a better chance of success. The transitional federal government, which the international community officially backs, can be discarded.

There is little chance that any single government can control all of Somalia in the foreseeable future. Instead, a settlement that holds would probably require each of the feuding factions to agree to keep the peace on its own turf in return for desperately needed humanitarian assistance for its constituents.

Such a less than perfect peace would be a long, messy affair; at times, morally ambiguous – precisely the kind of enterprise for which Americans have little patience. It is bribery and back-alley warfare with no obvious military victories. It will require area expertise to navigate Somalia's fiendishly complicated local politics. It will require continued engagement and management skill. And it will require greater amounts of financial assistance than we have seen thus far.

An earlier transitional government called for a Marshall Plan to rebuild Somalia. It got just $20 million, mainly from Saudi Arabia. That's roughly what America spends in Iraq every 100 minutes, and totally inadequate for the task.

The price of neglect would be greater – a growing conflict on the Horn of Africa, another recruiting poster for al-Qaeda and an army of radicalized young Somalis – just what the jihadists want.

Jenkins is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He is the author of “Unconquerable Nation” (RAND, 2006), which proposes a wide-ranging strategy to defeat terrorism.

More About This Commentary

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.