July 2, 2009

HARRISONBURG—Today in his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, continues to urge the adoption of a what he describes as a “realistic stratagem” for dealing with the conflict in Somalia between the country’s tottering “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) and the Islamist insurgents led by al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked group formally designated a “foreign terrorist organization” last year by the U.S. Department of State.

The article reviews the further deterioration of the situation in Somalia and criticizes the Obama administration’s decision to send 40 tons of weapons and munitions to the TFG, noting with respect to the latter that the “poorly thought-out gesture may have handed the Islamist extremists both the weapons and the nationalist (and anti-American) card” to use in their fight against the interim regime. Dr. Pham then argues:

If the failure so far of no fewer than fourteen internationally-sponsored attempts at establishing a national government indicates anything, it is the futility—indeed, hubris—of the notion that outsiders can impose a regime on Somalia, even if it is staffed with presumably moderate Somalis duly vetted and anointed by the international community. Instead, in the context of the decentralized reality among the Somali, the concerned international community in general and the United States in particular need to invest the time and resources to seek out local partners who are actually capable of partnering to create a modicum of stability—societal, economic, and, ultimately, governmental—rather than throwing money and arms at a “Transitional Federal Government” which, as a former U.S. ambassador who dealt with Somali issues told me last week, “is neither transitional, nor federal, nor a government.”

Dr. Pham proceeds to sketch out the outlines of an alternative approach that includes working instead with effective authorities in the Republic of Somaliland, Puntland State, the province of Gedo, and other areas of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic:

Consider just the raw demographic data. Of the estimated 9 million Somalis in the world, more than one million of them are refugees or permanently living in the diaspora; 3.5 million live in the Republic of Somaliland; and another 2.4 million in Puntland. Thus, even if its writ were not circumscribed to a few pockets in Mogadishu, the unelected TFG could claim to govern at most one-fifth of the Somali population. How can failing to engage with the legitimate elected authorities—directly chosen in internationally-monitored democratic elections with universal suffrage in the case of Somaliland, indirectly picked by the region’s House of Representatives in the case of Puntland, co-opted by traditional leaders in the case of Gedo—who actually govern two-thirds of Somalis be helpful? Going forward, the international community would do better to engage these nascent polities. Doing so not only recognizes the progress they have achieved, but also, by helping to strengthen the remarkable stability they have already secured, both reduces the “problem areas” which need to be of concern and wins Somali partners who are best positioned to show their own fellows how to they might get their act together.

Building up the capacities of the functional parts of the former Somali state also has the additional advantage of standing up important allies in the fight against the two most pressing security challenges emanating from the failed state: maritime piracy and the spread of Islamist extremism and violence.

In addition, Dr. Pham emphasized that “any workable solution to the crisis of governance and capacity in the Somali lands must embrace a ‘bottom-up’ or ‘building-block’ approach rather than the hitherto ‘top-down’ strategy. This means that a truly realistic strategy must engage traditional clan leaders, members of the vibrant Somali business community, and civil society actors.” He concludes:

While the news coming from Mogadishu continues to be disconcerting, it need not be the cause for exaggerated alarmism. After all, any policy must, at the very least, do no harm. Moreover, a sober look at the reality on the ground in the Horn of Africa points the way to what can realistically be done to ensure security for Somalis, their neighbors, and the overall international order.

To read the full text of the article, “ Somalia: Strategic Realities and Realistic Stratagems,” click here.