By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
The Weekly Standard
Jan. 29, 2007
America returns to Somalia.
If there is one lesson to be drawn from American military engagements since 9/11, it is that the hard part is winning the peace. Nowhere is this truer today than in Somalia. With the army-vs.-army phase of the conflict in that country seemingly complete, Somalia’s transitional federal government faces its real challenge.
The position of the transitional government seemed dire a month ago. The Islamic Courts Union, a radical group affiliated with al Qaeda, was on the brink of destroying the U.N.-recognized government, which was confined to the south-central city of Baidoa. But when the Islamic Courts Union launched an assault on Baidoa, the Ethiopian military (which was protecting the transitional government) responded with greater force than expected. The Islamic Courts had no good response to Ethiopian airpower. And high-level sources in both the transitional government and U.S. military intelligence report that U.S. air and ground forces were active from the outset, including CIA paramilitary officers, Special Operations forces, Marine units, and helicopter gunships.
The Ethiopians and the transitional government wrested Mogadishu from the Islamic Courts on December 28, and have reversed most of the latter’s geographic gains. The apparent end of major combat came with the mid-January capture of the southeastern town of Ras Kamboni, the Islamic Courts’ final stronghold. According to a senior U.S. military intelligence officer, there were more than 1,000 Islamic Courts casualties in the battle for Ras Kamboni alone, and a number of hard drives belonging to senior Islamic Courts Union leaders–including Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, head of the group’s consultative council–were captured.
Now the hard part begins. The transitional government faces what its permanent secretary in charge of international cooperation, Dahir Jibreel, calls “acute needs”: Its soldiers and civil servants aren’t receiving salaries, and the government hasn’t started collecting taxes.
Jibreel provides a dramatic illustration of the shortages that the government is facing: Recently, at the presidential palace in Mogadishu, there was no food. To remedy this, the commander of presidential security persuaded relatives in Minneapolis to solicit donations from private U.S. citizens. They worked day and night, and were able to send several thousand dollars back to Somalia. But the fact that contributions from Somali expats are needed to stock the larders of the presidential palace speaks volumes.
Indeed, Jibreel believes that winning the war but losing the peace “is no longer just a concern; it’s moving to a reality.” Washington has allocated $40 million to Somalia but it’s unclear how much of this will reach the transitional government. Some money has been earmarked for an anticipated African Union peacekeeping force, while other funds will go to nongovernmental organizations.
“At the end of the day, we want appropriations,” Jibreel said. “We want money and resources to be given to implement what has to be done. The security forces of Somalia have to be established and maintained, the civil servants have to be paid, and we have to overcome the militias that are marauding around. We need resources–not earmarking for NGOs or U.N. organizations, but actual direct financial and technical assistance.”
According to a senior U.S. military intelligence officer, the Pentagon and State Department are bickering about how to handle cash outlays to the transitional government. The Pentagon favors large cash transfers of the kind Jibreel calls for, while State wants to provide aid in smaller chunks with tighter control on who receives the money. State’s goal is to prevent corruption and mismanagement of funds while encouraging the transitional government to seek a broad-based coalition for governing Somalia, probably including putative moderates from the Islamic Courts Union.
The intelligence officer disagrees with this approach. “The government needs the money now,” he said. “It’ll do the most good right now. If you want to see the return of the Islamic Courts Union, this is the perfect recipe. The United States has been criticized for how it’s acted in Somalia in the past. We can’t repeat our past mistakes and allow the Islamic Courts Union to take power again.”
The transitional government’s financial shortfall has direct implications for the two greatest challenges it faces. The first is preventing an insurgency. The head of the Islamic Courts Union’s executive council, Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed (who was captured during the past week), has called for a move to insurgent fighting.
There is reason to believe that the Islamic Courts Union may succeed in mounting an insurgency. A senior military intelligence officer told me that its forces’ ability to “melt away” as Ethiopian troops advance is reminiscent of the Taliban’s dispersal after Kandahar fell in Afghanistan. Also, a confidential report drafted by the U.N.’s Monitoring Group on Somalia in late 2006 warns that the Islamic Courts Union “is fully capable of turning Somalia into what is currently an Iraq-type scenario, replete with roadside and suicide bombers, assassinations, and other forms of terrorist and insurgent-type activities.”
If an insurgency is to be prevented, the fact that the government’s soldiers haven’t been paid is of utmost concern. Jibreel worries that these troops “could walk away in despair.”
American military intelligence sources report that the “Golden Chain,” a group of wealthy individuals from the Gulf states who have donated millions of dollars to al Qaeda, is backing the Islamic Courts financially. Moreover, donations have allegedly increased since major fighting broke out in Somalia in late 2006. If the transitional government’s soldiers do not receive a salary for months at a time, it’s likely they’ll simply join the side that can pay them. Right now, that side is the Islamic Courts.
The second major challenge the transitional government faces is demonstrating that it can provide stability. The rise of the Islamic Courts was aided by the lawlessness that prevailed in Somalia after the fall of president Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Rival warlord factions dominated the country, and a Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder points out that the warlords’ militias “were notorious for indiscriminate violence.” There was a high incidence of rape, and Somalis were unable to travel freely “without fear of being killed.”
Some Somalis were willing to accept the Islamic Courts’ strict version of sharia law (people who tried to watch soccer matches were shot) because they viewed the group as a stabilizing force. If the country descends once more into chaos, the Islamic Courts may rise again–perhaps emerging stronger, since their opponents will have been discredited by their inability to maintain order.
This is another area where the transitional government’s lack of resources may have a profound impact. Jibreel says, “There is no money for the administration to run, either in the capital or in the districts. There is no money to pay anybody working in the administration.” Here surely the United States can help.
It is now widely recognized that the United States should not have disengaged from Somalia in 1994. The Bush administration should not make the same mistake.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a counterterrorism consultant and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam.
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