Terms of Engagement
From Black Hawk Down to Standing Up
Could Somalia actually be ready to throw off the failed state tag?
On June 3, the United Nations mission in Somalia celebrates a milestone, by moving — to Somalia. For the last 18 years, the U.N. Political Office in Somalia (UNPOS) has had to operate from Nairobi, Kenya, since the Somali government, when it existed at all, controlled only a few spots in Mogadishu, the capital city, and virtually nothing beyond that. But in the summer of 2011, an African Union force finally pushed the Islamic militants known as al-Shabab out of the capital, and since then both people and money have poured in. On May 2, the U.N. Security Council voted to replace UNPOS with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Somalia, and actually put it in Somalia. If you’ve held the top spot in FP‘s Failed States Index five years running, that’s a real achievement.
Somalia is still, of course, the failed state nonpareil, with no functioning government or military and an insurgency still capable of mounting audacious attacks in the heart of the capital. In mid April, al-Shabab suicide bombers killed 35 people at the Supreme Court complex, the highest death toll since they fled Mogadishu en masse. Nevertheless, conditions are now present for Somalia — with an immense amount of outside help — to begin healing itself. And this raises two very important questions: What went right, and can those factors be applied to states in similarly dire straits?
A few weeks ago, Augustine Mahiga, the very capable Tanzanian diplomat who has just stepped down after three years as the head of UNPOS, returned to New York, and I asked him just those questions. Mahiga, who is a good deal more plain-spoken than your average U.N. official, said that the key prerequisite was exhaustion: After 22 years of war, he said, "People were looking for an opportunity to transcend the vicious cycle." Of course, this is a little like noting that even the worst fire eventually consumes everything in its path, and dies out. The implicit inference is that outsiders can’t do much until years of bloody stalemate have proved to combatants in a civil war that there is nothing to be gained by more fighting — as Edward Luttwak argued in his notorious essay, "Give War a Chance." Syria, for example, may be at the very early stages of this process.
When Mahiga arrived in 2010, Somalia’s factions had been engaged in a U.N.-sponsored "transitional process" since 2004. When I went to Addis Ababa with Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general, in 2005, I watched a session of Somali clan leaders trying to find common ground to form a government; it ultimately dissolved in chaos, as did subsequent efforts. But fatigue slowly induced a willingness to share power, and Mahiga and regional leaders initiated a process of negotiation which included factions who had not been given a seat at the table in the past, including leaders of provinces seeking autonomy and moderate Islamic fighters who had taken on al-Shabab. The Transitional Federal Institutions, as the process was called, ultimately agreed to choose a parliament, which in turn elected a president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, in Sept. 2012. This, in itself, represented a modest triumph over fratricidal clan politics — though a report from the International Crisis Group called it a "botched process" shaped by "short-term political expediency."
Yet none of that would have mattered if security gains hadn’t made it possible to "bring the process inside Somalia," as Mahiga puts it. And here we come to the part of the story which is, ironically, entirely outside Somalia — having almost nothing to do with the will or capacity of the Somalis themselves. Al-Shabab, which overran Mogadishu in the summer of 2006, managed to frighten, first, Somalia’s neighbors, and then the West, sparking the kind of determined military response which ordinary fratricidal countries — Rwanda, for example — never got. Ethiopia, a predominantly Christian nation spooked by the presence of Islamic extremists on its doorstep, invaded in late 2006, and was replaced by an African Union (AU) force led by Ugandan troops. Mahiga explained Uganda’s willingness to put soldiers in harm’s way by noting that Yoweri Museveni, the country’s megalomaniac (my word) president, aspired to assert Pan-African leadership, and was eager to replace Ethiopia and rescue a helpless neighbor.
The Ugandans, along with troops from Kenya and Burundi, began to arrive in 2007. When al-Shabab retook Mogadishu in 2009, the AU troops had to literally fight their way out of the airport. At least 3,000 AU soldiers have died, which equals or surpasses the total number of U.N. peacekeepers who have died in all operations, ever. It is safe to say that if Somalia had been forced to depend on U.N. peacekeepers — as, say, the Democratic Republic of Congo has had to — al-Shabab would still be in the ascendant.
But the AU couldn’t have succeeded by itself, either: the soldiers who arrived were half starving and woefully under-equipped. During this period, however, al-Shabab began to spout the rhetoric of al Qaeda, to which it ultimately declared formal allegiance — in retrospect, probably not a very wise decision. In 2008, the U.S. State Department designated the group a foreign terrorist orgnization. Suddenly, Somalia looked like the latest lawless frontier to be exploited by America’s mortal enemies. The West took notice. Starting in 2010, the Security Council agreed to pay for food, logistics, medicine, and the like; the European Union paid the salaries of the AU troops at the U.N. scale; and the United States and Britain paid for military equipment. Since 2007, Washington has spent more than $500 million on the AU force.
"This is the paradox of Somalia," says Mahiga. After the "Blackhawk Down" incident in 1993, the world fled from the Somali miasma. But the combination of terrorism and piracy in the Indian Ocean has brought immense resources into the area, including CIA drones and naval assets from all over the world. Here the lesson couldn’t be more clear: failed states do not, by themselves, threaten either neighbors or the West, at least not enough to merit a tough response. But failed states often attract terrorists, and then outsiders take notice. The world mostly shrugged when military officers staged a coup in Mali; but when fighters affiliated with al Qaeda threatened to march on the capital, France sent in paratroopers, and forced them back into the desert.
There is a broad point here about will and capacity. Hapless states like Somalia lack the capacity to defend themselves; outsiders must do that, but they won’t spend the kind of blood or treasure required unless their own interests seem seriously threatened. But even a successful intervention can do no more than enable the subsequent political process; and here the local factions must find the will to share power and work together. It is at this stage that the process of recuperation often falls apart, as it has in places like Haiti and Burundi time and again. Libya now finds itself at this very fragile point; so, too, Somalia.
Like Afghanistan, Somalia is too weak, too big, and too heterogeneous — geographically and ethnically — to be ruled by a ruthless tyrant like Saddam Hussein or Bashar al-Assad. The only alternatives are federalism or civil war. But federalism requires ceding power; and President Mohamoud has been no more willing to do that than has Presid
ent Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Much of al-Shabab has fled north, to Puntland, which seeks greater autonomy within Somallia, and to Somaliland, which views itself as a separate nation. Neither region is prepared to accept the presence of government troops, though neither can they expel al-Shabab on its own.
The political process was supposed to include a parallel process of fostering local and provincial government structures. That, says Mahiga, hasn’t even begun, in part because President Mohamoud fears empowering rival clans to his north and south. There has been no movement towards drafting a permanent constitution which would enshrine a federal system. Meanwhile, negotiations with Puntland have been "very painful and scratchy." There is no dialogue at all with Somaliland. That sounds like a dangerous form of drift.
Failed states can climb out of the mire and then fall back, or they can keep climbing. That could be Somalia’s destiny. There seems to be oil in Puntland, and in the Indian Ocean. The waters are full of unfished stocks. Bangladesh used to be a byword for catastrophe; now it’s just a mess. For Somalia, that would be just fine.