A propped-up government whose popular support has vanished, a guerrilla insurgency tied to al-Qaeda, a patchwork quilt of regional warlords, and an awkward international coalition that can’t agree on how to intervene. In so many ways, Somalia has become another Afghanistan.
As senior ministers from 55 countries, including Canada, gather in London on Thursday for a day-long summit to try to deal with Somalia’s multiple crises and confront its seething terrorist threat, the underlying worry is that the mistakes of Afghanistan are being repeated.
Somalia has now gone 22 years without a legitimate national government, and into that vacuum have fallen warlords, pirates, militias and, most recently, al-Shabaab, the rebel army that has threatened to take over the country and has become a Horn of Africa branch of al-Qaeda. Their war with the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has inflamed military conflicts with neighbouring states, provoked terror attacks across Africa and caused a famine that has killed tens of thousands.
“It’s a very complex situation, and in many ways it’s similar to Afghanistan,” said Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, a Kenya-based Somalia analyst with the International Crisis Group. He added that the transitional government can be compared to that of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. “It’s endemically corrupt,” he said, “it cannot govern beyond Mogadishu, it doesn’t enjoy broad support, it has multiple deficiencies – there is a lack of a central authority holding together Somalia, and that is why we have piracy, warlords and now al-Qaeda.”
Western countries now face the puzzle they confronted when Afghanistan became a breeding ground for terrorism and the site of humanitarian disasters in the late 1990s and early 2000s: Does the solution involve humanitarian or nation-building assistance on a large scale, or a larger military campaign to oust the threat?
Less than 24 hours before the summit began, the military option loomed larger. On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council voted to increase the size of the EU-funded African Union fighting force in Somalia by almost 6,000 troops, to 17,731. The soldiers, coming from neighbouring African countries that are threatened by Somalia’s instability, have pushed al-Shabaab out of the capital Mogadishu and many of its strongholds.
For the first time, the UN and the EU will be providing nine utility helicopters and three attack helicopters – and there were reports in the British media that NATO has contemplated the use of a Libya-style air-support mission for the Somali soldiers, though there has been little political appetite for this.
And there is the very Afghanistan-inspired worry that an escalation of the military operation will only make things worse. The European Union-backed military operation, known as ANISOM, has reportedly been responsible for atrocities, is divided among member nations with differing goals, has reportedly weakened support for the transitional government, and its intensive warfare has forced most aid groups to flee the country.
Many of the humanitarian and aid groups attending Thursday’s summit are urging governments to focus on the nation-building effort instead of the military thrust, arguing that extremism will intensify if the underlying problems aren’t dealt with. “Policies focused more on international security concerns than on the needs, interests and wishes of the Somali people have inadvertently fuelled both the conflict and the humanitarian crisis,” the charity Oxfam said in a briefing to the summit on Wednesday.
Most of Somalia’s underlying problems are rooted in the lack of a legitimate national government, a situation that has prevailed more or less continuously since the military regime of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed in 1991. The Western-backed TFG’s mandate will expire in August, and one of the purposes of Thursday’s summit will be to find something to replace it.
Some observers point to the breakaway Somali regions of Somaliland and Puntland, which have become semi-independent entities governed by distinct clans; Somaliland is now recognized by some organizations as an independent state. Some analysts argue that a loose federation of tribal regions is the only workable model, and are pleased to see Somaliland attending the summit, for the first time, perhaps to offer advice.
But this, others say, is simply a way for outsiders to avoid the hard work of rebuilding the Somali state that must accompany any military endeavour.
“We cannot just fight militarily against al-Shabaab – because al-Shabaab is a symptom, it is not a disease. The disease is the lack of a functioning authority,” said Mr. Halakhe.