The West is moving toward a military intervention in Mali, somewhat slowly yet entirely deliberately, due to concerns about al-Qaeda's control of territory there. An October UN Security Council resolution authorizes such military action, and while the United States has long supported such a move, Defence Minister Peter MacKay's recent comments indicate that Canada, too, may be willing to contribute troops to such a venture.
Supporters of this intervention can point to a model in the quiet campaign the U.S. has waged for the past half-decade against jihadi groups in Somalia. But it is not yet clear, when all is said and done, that the Somalia campaign will be viewed as a success.
The elevation of Somalia as a model for future military action comes at a time when jihadi groups, and al-Qaeda in particular, have been undergoing an evolution. Since the death of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's core leadership in Pakistan has experienced a significant amount of attrition, much of it on the receiving end of American drone strikes. This leadership may prove to be more resilient than many observers believe, but for the time being it appears to have receded to the background while al-Qaeda's affiliates and fellow travellers step to the fore.
The most prominent place where this has occurred is northern Mali, a locale that the Associated Press recently called "al-Qaeda's new country." Not only is this the largest territory that al-Qaeda and its affiliates now hold, but some observers believe their control is greater than it was in pre-9/11 Afghanistan. As former diplomat Robert Fowler told the Associated Press, "Al-Qaeda never owned Afghanistan. They do own northern Mali." Concern about these developments is shared by multiple countries: As one Western diplomat put it, the perception exists that jihadi control of territory in Mali "will pose a direct threat to Europe."
This concern brings us back to Somalia, and the model that many Western observers think we have found there. After all, for several years, Somalia looked awfully similar to how Mali looks now: the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab controlled a rather vast territory, was able to implement its harsh version of sharia law, and appeared increasingly able to carry out attacks outside the country's borders. The most dramatic example of this was the group's attack in Uganda that killed seventy-four in the summer of 2010.
But this year, because of several factors, al-Shabaab lost control. It badly mishandled a drought that slammed the Horn of Africa in the summer of 2011, exacerbating the crisis by accusing humanitarian organizations of trying to spread Christianity then ejecting them from areas it controlled. Further, the U.S. developed a strategy for reversing al-Shabaab's gains that included supporting African Union counterinsurgency efforts, recruiting Somali groups to function as proxies against the extremists, building an indigenous Somali intelligence network, and employing "decapitation" strikes (often employing drones) against al-Shabaab leaders. Even Kenya got into the anti-Shabaab action, mounting its own invasion of Somalia in October, 2011.
After losing its final stronghold of Kismayo in late September, al-Shabaab is seen as being on the run – and hence, the interest in the "Somalia model." For example, an op-ed written by a senior adviser for a communications group that counts the African Union in Somalia among its clients explicitly states that Somalia is a good model for intervention in Mali. "International intervention by proxy has become a more attractive option since the hard-won success in Somalia," the op-ed states.
Nor are proponents of the Somalia model limited to those on the African Union payroll. As the Washington Post has reported, the Obama administration similarly believes the intervention in Somalia "could present a model for Mali."
It is unclear precisely what the administration and commentators have in mind when they speak about drawing lessons from Somalia, though a few threads of thought are clear. One principle is that there should be no Western "boots on the ground" – although drones, special forces, and the ubiquitous "military trainers" may play a role. Other principles include local forces taking the lead in combat operations, and working multilaterally with other countries. The aforementioned UN Security Council resolution on Mali laid the groundwork for multilateral efforts there.
But the $64,000 question is how well will things turn out in Somalia? While al-Shabaab has experienced legitimately large setbacks, there are reasons for concern that the Somalia model is being oversold.
I have a database of attacks executed by al-Shabaab that begins when Kismayo was surrounded by African Union forces in late September. By the beginning of December, al-Shabaab and its sympathizers had carried out 68 reported attacks in Somalia and Kenya, with 144 killed and 300 wounded. There was a relative lull in attacks through most of the month, with the pace picking up again near the end. Attacks near the end of the month included the shooting of a Kenyan policeman in a border town, the assassination of one of the clan elders who selected the country's National Constituent Assembly, and a clash with government troops in southwestern Somalia that killed two.
The group that al-Shabaab emerged from as a splinter, the Islamic Courts Union, lost the hold over Somalia that it gained in 2006 after Ethiopia – supported by the United States – invaded Somalia to stabilize the country's transitional federal government. Within a couple of years, this invasion would be seen as a failure, as the Islamic Courts were able to mount an insurgency, and al-Shabaab emerged as the strongest military force in the country's south. It is not clear that the current attacks in Somalia are similarly sharpening into an insurgency: even before the lull in attacks in mid-December, there was no discernible trend in terms of the frequency and quantity of al-Shabaab-inflicted casualties, which were not perceptibly increasing or decreasing over time. (Since I began this database only as Kismayo was falling, it offers no comparison to violence levels while al-Shabaab still controlled that city.)
In the longer term, there are reasons for both optimism and also pessimism. Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is al-Shabaab's mishandling of the drought. The group's policies caused drought-stricken areas it controlled to descend into famine, leaving behind great resentment of its years of misrule. With a hat tip to Mao, this may make the population less likely to allow al-Shabaab to move amongst them as fish swim in the sea. Another reason for optimism is that al-Shabaab has experienced internal splintering during the past year that may be exacerbated following the loss of Kismayo.
But there are also reasons for pessimism. When Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, it had the advantage of surprise, and secured most of southern Somalia in less than thirty days. In contrast, the African Union's advance on Kismayo was gradual. Al-Shabaab retained control of territory in southern Somalia for months following its flight from Kismayo, as can be seen by the fact that Jowhar remained under al-Shabaab control as late as Dec. 9. Thus, al-Shabaab may be able to maintain some of its core strengths, and also evacuate its leadership to plan for a long-term insurgency.
We will certainly hear more about Somalia as a model in the coming months, and it may end up being seen as one. But it is worth noting that not only did the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 appear successful for a short time – before the insurgency caught on – but so too were the success of other recent interventions greatly exaggerated at first. The Afghanistan war appeared to be a stunning success after the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance quickly displaced the Taliban following the 9/11 attacks, but preventing the Taliban's resurgence would prove far more difficult. Even the Iraq war seemed highly successful after the rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.
It is possible – though not inevitable – that in several years, the current talk of Somalia as a model will appear every bit as myopic as talk in 2003 that the Iraq war was a strong precedent for the U.S. deposing further Middle Eastern dictators.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author or volume editor of eleven books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden's Legacy(Wiley, 2011).