Somalia has been a mess of a country for years, lacking a solid, truly functioning government since 1991. After the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, the United States largely washed its hands of the East African country, in a manner similar to American relations with Afghanistan after the Soviet Union left that country in defeat. In another similar parallel, Somalia reappeared on the radar of American policymakers in a forceful manner after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The driving motivation behind this new awareness of Somalia was the fear over failed states, that as the case of Afghanistan represented, terrorist organizations could use the operational safeguards of operating in regions of the world beyond the effective control of a government for the purposes of planning and implementation of terrorist strikes.
Since September 11, American security concerns in Somalia have focused on two overlapping priorities. The first has centered on bringing to justice three members of al-Qaeda's East African cell that were responsible for the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania back in 1998 and the attack against an Israel-owned hotel and an El Al flight in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002. These individuals are Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, Abu Talha al-Sudani and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. The United States has instigated a number of precision strikes in Somalia in the hopes of eliminating the perpetrators of the previously described acts of terrorism, with at least four attempts in the past fifteen months. Most recently, a Tomahawk cruise missile strike was launched unsuccessfully against Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan in the Somali town of Dobley on March 3.
On the macro level, American policy has also been to prevent the establishment of an Islamist regime in Somalia and to help stabilize the weak Transitional Federal Government that holds notional power in the country. However, the focus so far has been placed more on the prevention side of this coin, with the preference being to keep support for the Transitional Federal Government at arm's length. The general aim here is to avoid the creation of an environment that would be even more conducive as an al-Qaeda safe haven than already exists. To this end, the United States supported the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December 2006 which toppled the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist militia force that controlled the capital of Mogadishu and other areas of Somalia and could be considered a rough equivalent to the Taliban in the manner in which the group arose organically out of the chaos of a failed state and imposed religiously based law and order. Since that invasion, the Ethiopian military, with the support of troops loyal to the Transitional Federal Government and a small peacekeeping contingent from the African Union, has battled an insurgency reminiscent of Iraq in both tactics and brutality led by remnants of the Islamic Courts Union. The most militant wing of the ICU, known as al-Shabaab, was recently designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US government and has significant linkages with the wider al-Qaeda movement. Despite evidence that al-Shabaab is trending upward in its operational capacity, at least some observers think American policy in Somalia is succeeding. According to The Economist:
But it is not all gloom. Al-Qaeda's bid to make Somalia a base for its global franchise has so far failed. There are probably no more than a few dozen foreign fighters left in the country. Of the three al-Qaeda men believed to have been involved in bombing the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, one, Abu Talha al-Sudani, has been killed; another, Saleh Ali Nabhan, is said to be isolated and close to being captured or killed. A more formidable al-Qaeda man, Fazul Muhammad, may have been in Kenya several times in the past year but is no longer thought to command Somali jihadist fighters. Informants say he is on the run and that, when he has the time, he likes to watch classic Disney films.
While certainly encouraging, the nature of this kind of war means that small groups of people can cause harm on a scale wholly out of sync with their numbers. In The Economist's analysis, the surge in al-Shabaab attacks is merely a lashing out in response to its new terrorist designation by the State Department, and not symptomatic of any concrete increase in threat. Time will tell which factor is the true explanation.
As students of counterinsurgency are aware, the ultimate solution to these situations is of a political nature, not a military nature. With Ethiopia clearly wanting to withdraw its forces from Somalia, there is some hope that a political rapprochement is in the works.
Moderate Islamists and elders from the disaffected Hawiye clan, which provides the secular nationalist bit of the insurgency with most of its fighters, say they are ready to strike a deal with President Yusuf. The price of a unity government would be the departure of the hated Ethiopian troops but it is no longer a precondition. A deal must offer the Hawiye enough to keep them on board, but not so much that it alienates other clans. Finding the balance in a maelstrom of hunger and killing will be hard, but not impossible.
Notably here, The Economist claims that the Hawiye clan, one of Somalia's most prominent, of participating in the insurgency against Ethiopia purely out of secular nationalist motives. This is not the truth of the situation as the Hawiye were strong backers of the Islamic Courts Union when it was in power. Further, members of the Hawiye played prominent leadership roles within the ICU, including its commander, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys.
In assessing American policy on Somalia, there are clear positives as well as negatives. Al-Qaeda is still active in the region, but relative marginalization - or at least the lack of growth and significant influx - of its operatives is no small potatoes. The endurance of the Islamist insurgency is the true question, but with political considerations being what they are, American involvement in Somalia and support for the Transitional Federal Government will likely continue in a deus ex machina fashion, with the US occasionally smiting its enemies from afar when a choice opportunity arises.