Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Stop Bashing the Somalis

Posted in Somalia by Dan on September 9, 2009
Mainstream Pessimism only hurts Somalia's chances for a hopeful future

Mainstream Pessimism only hurts Somalia's chances for a hopeful future

As I was doing my usual channel-surfing on the internet, killing some time by staring at the clock and reading today’s news, I ran across a thoughtful (yet analytical) piece by Purdue University professor Michael Weinstein about the ongoing political stalemate in Somalia.  Mr. Weinstein starts his article in the same manner as every African analyst seems to do nowadays; going through the laundry list of violence occurring between Somalia’s Transitional Federal Authority and the Islamic opposition.

He claims that Somalia’s situation is too “complex, convoluted and fragmented” to draw accurate conclusions regarding the status of the country’s insurgency.  Fair enough…I agree somewhat.  The pictures and reports of civilians feeling Somalia in order to escape the barbarism of their homeland is only proof of this well-recognized fact.

Next, the political science professor goes on a full-fledged rampage, defaming the United States and the United Nation’s as weak and passive actors towards the conflict in Somalia; reinforced only through their ignorance of Somali politics and society.  So he concludes, one of the main reasons why the TFA is unable to resist Islamic factions in Mogadishu is because its main donors- the United States and Western Europe- do not understand the nature of Somali infighting.  Washington has formulated and expanded its Horn of Africa strategy on the assumption that the TFA is battling a large and united Islamic insurgency; when the fact is that many clans, sub-clans, terrorists, militias, and Sunni radicals are involved.

This, too, is a statement worth considering.  Somalia has always been a divided and decentralized society; operating solely under the flags of clan-loyalties rather than the united banner of nationalism that so many other countries take for granted.  With this complicated history virtually dominating the behavior of Somalis since their independence from western colonialism, it would be natural for Mr. Weinstein to shed light on the various factions contributing to Somali instability.  Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmad, the president of Somalia’s governing authority, has been placed in a unique, although difficult, situation; forced to combat a number of small-scale insurgencies aimed at establishing an Islamic State.  Once again, Mr. Weinstein seems correct on this point.

It is his next argument- that the TFA is an inadequate government only exacerbating Somalia’s domestic problems- that I personally take issue with.  Unexpectedly, there is no denying President Ahmad’s reluctance in taking the fight to the enemy (or in this case, the enemies).  With the government-bankroll all but dried up, he simply lacks the money or resources necessary for an effective counterinsurgency and counterterrorism plan.  The strength of Islamic factions in the southern part of the country, both in numbers and in morale, is another factor that should be highlighted.  Government troops are underfunded and undermanned, lacking the same type of resolve that defines the character of the opposition.

In a similar vein, Ahmad is meshed into a loosely-held coalition, consisting of former Islamic fighters, pro-western sympathizers, and Somali nationalists.  From a purely political standpoint, Mr. Ahmad may not want to marginalize himself from a sizeable portion of the TFA by cracking down on Muslim populations.  Such an action would prove to be suicidal for his personal career and his ambitions for the future.   Finally, Ethiopian meddling within Somali society (even after Ethiopian troops withdrew from Somali soil in 2008), does not help the capabilities of the TFA either…there is a widely-held belief that Ethiopia is training warlords who have contrary interests to Ahmad’s transitional government.

I have no qualms about Weinstein’s timeline of events.  In fact, it would be extremely difficult for anyone to disprove many of his points.  Everyone recognizes that the TFA’s has its fair share of faults and weaknesses.  What I do find disturbing is his harsh rhetoric towards the governing authority in general, claiming that it is a “concocted…improbable hybrid that is engineered to fail.”

What Mr. Weinstein fails to consider is the alternative to this situation; a marginalized state ruled by hundreds upon hundreds of tyrannical warlords who wish to promote their own autocratic agenda.  Americans have already witnessed this unfortunate scenario, as was apparent in the botched 1993 military operation in Mogadishu that resulted in 18 American casualties.  From a personal perspective, it seems as if this academic wants Somalia to enter into a time-machine and recede back to the days when warlords used natural resources, food, and water as bargaining chips.  With violence spreading throughout the state, the last thing Somalia needs is another African atrocity, reinforced by millions of starving and malnourished people desperately clamoring for a faint-hope of life.  If Weinstein had his way, Somalia would become more of a government-less society than it already is, opening up a breeding ground for Islamic fundamentalism.  In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, a third-front in the War on Terrorism would be created; stretching an already overburdened U.S. Military further.

There is no disputing the fact that the TFA has its problems.  Its presence in Somali political life has failed to lay the groundwork for an Al’Qaeda retreat, nor has its authority delivered much-needed services to Somali men, women, and children.  Yet, inadequacy in the present does not mean dissolution in the future.  The Transitional Governing Authority is a step in the right direction.  It attempts to foment peace by including Islamists in a power-sharing agreement, all the while pushing for the defeat of hard-line radicals to the south.  With more funding from western-donors, and with international peacekeepers on the ground, who knows how improved TFA capabilities will become?

In the world’s most dangerous state, the absence of a governing body would kill any chances for a genuine peace-deal and a more hopeful future.  While not perfect, President Ahmad’s coalition is at least working towards the other end of this spectrum.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-This blog was based on Michael Weinstein’s article, entitled No Simple Narrative in Somalia Drama.  His full article is published through the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think-tank.  A full version can be accessed at:  http://csis.org/story/no-simple-narrative-somalia-drama

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