Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

The State-Defense Department Spat

Posted in Somalia by Dan on September 15, 2009
Disagreeemnts over Somalia pin the State Department and the Pentagon in opposite corners

Disagreements over Somalia pin the State Department and the Pentagon in opposite corners

To anyone who is remotely interested in African politics, particularly in that violent-prone and contentious nation-state called Somalia, this may be of interest to the casual observer; the U.S. State Department has donated several million dollars to President Ahmad’s Transitional Federal Government.  Of course, the headline by itself is not very interesting…Washington has been known to support its fair share of pro-western coalitions (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ethiopia and Columbia to name only a few).  What makes this story jump out is the internal lobbying that has apparently divided the State and Defense Department over this policy.

As might be expected, any policy that deals with an extensive issue in foreign-affairs will produce debate and concern.  Post-Saddam Hussein Iraq is perhaps the most noteworthy, where officials from the State Department have complained of too few resources, funds, and manpower from the national government to perform the reconstruction mission adequately.  At least before Secretary Robert Gates took over the reigns at the Pentagon, defeating Iraq’s Islamic insurgency through military means was viewed as the main priority…a far cry from the “hearts and minds” strategy that U.S. soldiers have now advocated for the past two years.  Therefore, divisions within the U.S. Government are not particularly worrisome.  However, the Somali example is a distinct case-study; one that is slowly destroying any prospect for a unified and comprehensive African policy.

Reports, analysts, and editors of ForeignPolicy.com have been claiming that both the State Department and the Pentagon are up in arms about what should be done about Somalia’s ongoing trouble.  Obviously, the main concern for diplomats is the rebuilding of the Somali Transitional Authority; a loosely-held coalition composed of a number of factions, clans, and ideological dispositions.  In fact, the only possible way that President Ahmad could form a workable government was by including a number of different elements in the coalition; including Somali warlords, western sympathizers and members of Salafi Islam.  The mainstream perception among State officials is that only a strong central authority will be able to tame the country’s ongoing insurgency to the south; a policy option that many hawks label as unnecessary and nearly impossible to implement.

In contrast to the arduous task of nation building that the State Department traditionally focuses upon, Defense officials tend to look at Somalia through a narrow-lens; using every tool at its disposal to ensure that Somali violence does not threaten or endanger U.S. interests in the wider region.

Of course, the issue of terrorism is one of those main concerns.  With the southern portion of Somalia quickly becoming one of the world’s foremost breeding grounds for Al’Qaeda proxies, the president has not hesitated to aggressively pursue America’s asymmetrical adversaries in all ways, shapes, and forms; either through covert action or tactical air strikes (take yesterday’s reported killing of Saleh Ali Nabhan, top Al’Qaeda leader in Somalia, as an example).  With help from Ethiopian intelligence, the United States has actually been relatively successful at keeping a closed lid on Al’Qaeda activity…making sure that a devastating spill-over effect does not occur in Sub-Sahara Africa.

While there is reason to believe that U.S.-led air-attacks have accomplished their objectives thus far, this policy is yet another demonstration of inter-agency disagreement.  The Pentagon is continuing to concentrate on the short-term, while the State Department is working extensively for long-term development.

(Unfortunately, all of the hooting and hollering in the world has thus far failed to reach the ears of President Obama.  Mr. Obama’s obsession with Afghanistan may be part of the problem.  The African Bureau’s inexperience is certainly another)

Is a stable Mogadishu even possible based on the country’s fragile circumstances?  Would security in the capital eventually pave the way for a resurgent Somali state; a miracle that Somalis of all religions and ethnicities have been hoping for since the early 1990’s?  Or is Somalia simply a lost cause, a state where violence and mismanagement will further inflame the passions of the Islamic insurgency?  All of these questions need to be asked if the United States is genuinely interested in establishing peace in one of the world’s most dangerous areas.

While all of these queries have yet to be answered, we are fortunate enough that the State and Defense Departments are attempting to solve them in their own distinct ways.  Lobbying the White House is certainly an arduous task, and it appears that President Obama is finally experiencing the frustrations (and benefits) associated with inter-departmental rivalry.

In my own view, there is no magic formula for Somalia’s political landscape.  As I have said in previous blogs, Mogadishu tends to operate under the banner of ethnic competition than a unified sense of Somali nationalism.  Clans and sub-clans hold grudges for power and privilege; using historical animosities and a generalized sense of fear to safeguard their prospects for the future.  Al’Qaeda, a minor force only a decade ago, is now firmly entrenched in the Somali-way of life…bolstering their ranks through the exploitation of war-weary men, women, and yes…children.  With everything going wrong, tactical air-strikes on ‘targets of opportunity’ will not markedly alter the situation towards America’s advantage.  Nor will a reliance on President Ahmad’s coalition, due to its structural instability and its inability to expand order through Somalia’s major metropolitan centers.  The only thing that could possibly improve the Horn of Africa is by formulating a detailed plan; something that the U.S. Government has neglected to do over the past two decades.

Giving money to the TFA is fine, but when the amount is both insufficient and irresponsibly spent, its effects are virtually meaningless.  Bombing Al’Qaeda targets is fine too, but when the missiles kill civilians, it further inflames the local population and risks pushing them on the road towards violence.  Both approaches have their faults, but unfortunately, this is what the State and Defense Departments have continued to do.  In both realistic and moral terms, we cannot expect Somalis to unify if we cannot unify ourselves.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Elizabeth Dickinson of ForeignPolicy.com contributed to this blog.  Her full article can be accessed at: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/09/10/arming_somalia

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