Policy WATCH:
Can the U.S. Negotiate Somalia to Peace?
Suggestions That Engagement with Al-Shabaab Promote a Taliban-Like Exit
Al-Shabaab leaders march in Kismayo
Al-Shabaab leaders march in Kismayo

There are not one, but two articles on Somalia in Foreign Affairs magazine. “Negotiating an End to Somalia's War with al-Shabaab. Why Military Solutions Aren't Enough authored by Afyare Abdi Elmi and Abdi Aynte and The Splintering of Al Shabaab. A Rough Road From War to Peace by Bronwyn Bruton and J. Peter Pham.

This abundance of opinion piecesruns counter to the publication's and beltway's deep lack of interest in all things Somali. There is no money to be made in Somalia and even less upside to this administration moving it up the foreign policy agenda. But like it or not the U.S government is involved in Somalia and after this month's UK conference, more expert's may start boning up on the situation.

The first article by Elmi and Aynte is a level-headed plea to the transitional Somali government to negotiate a political solution with al-Shabaab, the hardline insurgent group battling for control of the country. The second piece is based on much the same premise of negotiation but structured more like a demand to Washington to snatch defeat from the jaws of what looks may be a military victory against al-Shabaab in Somalia. Their premise being that including al-Shabaab into the political process rather than violent pursuit may reduce the spread of terrorism in other regions of Africa. They speculate that, "The entire eastern seaboard of Africa, and even Johannesburg, would theoretically be vulnerable to attack. It would be a strange twist of counterterrorist fate: the successful battle against Islamist militants would catalyze al Shabaab's evolution into a regional terrorist organization." The logic is that even with al Shabaab gone and the organization hated inside Somalia, the key leaders like Aweys and Robow will still spread their violent dogma beyond Somalia's borders.

Bruton and Pham seem to be both be emblematic of the post-neocon disease that has taken hold inside Washington's beltway. Their call to “signal a willingness to live with al-Shabaab's disaffected nationalist branch, provided that they open the parts of Somalia that they control to humanitarian relief and make a break with the group's hardcore leadership and its ambitions of transnational jihad.” This sounds a little like the standard COIN mantra of isolating the “irreconcilables” and pulling the moderates towards Western rapprochement. The authors maintain" A central tenet of counterinsurgency strategy is that an insurgency's final defeat requires a credible political alternative to step into the ensuing power vacuum." Key word being "strategy" and not "reality". The list of violent insurgent groups simply annihilated in Africa is actually longer than those integrated into peaceful society. It is a uniquely Western view that al Qaeda-influenced groups like al Shabaab is somehow the same as legitimate insurgent groups and jihadis can be pacified.

This well intentioned idea of separating the quick from the soon to be dead, failed in Iraq and failed in Afghanistan. Although Petraeus makes hay from this idea when discussing the Iraq "New Awakening" program, it was more a matter of just hiring the “irreconcilables” with the other choice being killed by the aggressive targeting program. For the historical record the last time America opened up parts of Somalia to humanitarian relief it was done by force. That was President Bush's Operation Restore Hope which used military might to break the militia's grip on Mogadishu port and deliver food into the hinterlands. That reality would not support this current concept of negotiating for peace. There is no evidence that al-Shabaab will ever support western aid agencies in the areas they control by peaceful or negotiated means. Al-Shabaab has demanded payment for access by aid firms to fund their killing in Somalia and aid organizations simply can't do that. How negotiations with al-Shabaab would change this ugly idea is not presented.

In the tight fisted decade after 9/11 it is no longer popular to promote military solutions in foreign countries. North Korea, Iran and even Cuba feel quite confident that the US is more tough talk than military action. Somalia may be one exception. The drone program began last year. AMISOM has shown that even with its ponderous and heavy gunned style it can plod forward. Even tough talking but slow moving Kenya is pushing ahead. Ethiopia has been restrained from driving all the way to the sea but it too has used military force to scare off al-Shabaab. Puntland and the pro-government ASWJ militia are about to do some damage to al-Shabaab as well and it won't be with stern words. Security in Somalia was lost at the point of a gun and it looks like it will be taken back the same way.

Discussions and Drones

Targeted assassination against al-Shabaab is in effect in southern Somalia. The threat of instant judgment by Hellfire instead of Allah has yet to prompt any substantial public political dialog from the al-Shabaab top, bottom or middle. Perhaps this is because there is no substantial political plan or agenda within al-Shabaab. Combine that the TFG having the political legitimacy of a frat party and any attempt to offer "political dialog" from al-Shabaab would require them actually try to find someone in the TFG who could actually live up to any agreement made. Who exactly is going to anchor the other side of the table from al-Shabaab? A temporary western-backed government? Who will enforce any agreements? AMISOM?.

It is also hard to come to a well measured political solution with Reapers circling overhead. It is the cognitive application of "stick" to al Shabaab that has given the US the luxury of figuring what size "carrot" should be dangled. Before the drone program and the multi-pronged ground invasion, the stick was more twiggish and the carrot almost overwhelming. Al-Shabaab flourished and grew on carrots. Predatory taxes on aid groups and towns, lower Kismayo port fees even demanding zakat in the form of Bakara market charges, animals from starving nomads and children as recruits from the impoverished.

It is convenient and lazy for pundits to simply assume that keeping up lethal pressure without a clear win is “Fail” while putting the murderous jihadists who threaten their own society into positions of greater control is “Win”. Both articles seek a mysterious moderate al-Shabaab for these negotiations to be held with. Bruton and Pham correctly ascertain that, "The next and more dangerous stage of the jihad lies in Kenya, Libya, Nigeria, and Uganda." It is doubtful that these islamic groups will be pacified by negotiation either.

Elmi and Aynte suggest that:

"...former al Shabaab fighters, demobilized and retrained, could be integrated into that army.

After dealing with these demands, the negotiating team could tailor specific incentives to al Shabaab's different factions. Sitting at the top of the group is the small but powerful leadership council called Majlis al-Qiyadah. Ideologically, it is al-Shabaab's most extreme faction. Although it will not be easy, engaging Majlis al-Qiyad (or part of it) is possible.

Just below it is the Qiyadatul Mayadin (field commanders' network), which implements policies as directed by the leadership council. It is comprised mostly of local young men, some of whom belonged to the militias of Somalia's notorious warlords. They view their involvement with al Shabaab as a redemptive act of sorts but do not necessarily espouse the Qiyadah's radical ideology. They could be engaged through traditional elders and Islamic scholars.

At the bottom of the group is a vast fighting force. These fighters are not privy to any information, and the al Shabaab leadership does not trust them. Cognizant of this, the youth can be engaged through rehabilitation programs and other material incentives."

The authors neglect to mention that the entire goal of the Majlis al-Qiyadah and there Qiyadatul Mayadin is to create a Caliphate. There is no negotiation with Western powers in the creation of a Caliphate. Quite the opposite. The defense of islam inspires the destruction and removal of infidels and apostates via jihad. Elmi and Aynte are knowledgeable about conditions in Somalia and are correct that the integration of rank and file al Shabaab is a positive step but the idea of the top or the middle of the organization can be pulled of center by negotiation is incorrect.

This flawed concept of moderating jihad seems to only exist in GWOT pundit fantasy and not in the mind of local Somalis.

This idea of budget and political poll stress encouraging cut and run foreign policy has been eclipsed by a far more experienced and nuanced view of conflict most recently seen in Libya. A regime-changed place where there are no absolutes, no public high fives but no U.S. casualties. This new pragmatic view of the world makes proper use of special operations troops to change power structures, rescue hostages, assassinate violent enemies and allow a more inclusive diplomatic push to shift security situations. In the case of the ever-battling TFG the new U.S. policy of ignoring the incompetent and focusing on the competent is clearly in evidence. Al Shabaab has not even been considered as a potential candidate for leadership in greater Somalia.

Fail 101

It is popular to throw rocks at US foreign policy for being ponderous, incompetent and often counter productive. The long suffering support of the TFG and the UN in the face of constant failure is a good example. Like Afghanistan where our entire lynch pin was predicated on the support of a deeply unpopular government, US support of the TFG and relative kinetic inaction on the ground has played into al Shabaab’s hands.

But that is an old paradigm. The multi track approach was the first indication that just providing lip service to our foreign policy in exchange for a pay check was about to stop. In addition no one from the US State Dept has issued "Win" as the solution for Somalia. Like many post colonial nations plunged into chaos Somalia can only be moved up the "worst" list. There is no "win" in Somalia only the application of positive forces against negative forces.

The US policy of simply applying dollars to those we like (and denying oxygen to those they don’t’ support) ultimately wins out over hand to mouth organizations like al Shabaab. By supplying millions and millions to AMISOM they have slowly transformed al Shabaab from a military force to a guerilla force. By slowly killing off their leadership and using proxies to reduce their funding and movement, the U.S. backed effort has continually weakened al Shabaab to soon become fractured cels of suicidal murderers.

The truth is al Shabaab is losing on the moral, political and military front. They have lost major funding streams like Bakara market and are about to lose Kismayo port. Their ease of movement, recruiting and financing have been severely curtailed. Their military position as “We will kill the TFG” has changed to “Lets go camping in the mountains and think about it for a while”. Somalia Report tracks al-Shabaab movement and sees a rapidly increasing outflow of fighters towards the north and onward to relative safer havens in Yemen. It is safer and more strategically effective for al Shabaab to live in Nairobi than Kismayo. Yes there will always be cels that will attack with IEDs, assassinations and car bombs in the south but the days of al-Shabaab being a credible military threat are coming to an end. The premise that negotiation will stop the spread of al Shabaab does not address the underlying ideology that drives Somali's and foreigners to al Shabaab or any other violent Salafist group.

What Exactly is There to Negotiate?

The root of al-Shabaab’s (and al Qaeda) firmly resent foreign invaders, corrupt puppet government’s and apostates. The TFG is pretty much all that and more. Islamic insurgent groups in their deeply flawed way, at least offer local justice, adherence to sharia and a modicum of support for grass roots governance. Al-Shabaab though is a deeply clan and agenda divided mess. And there is no functioning permanent government for even the most moderate al Shabaab supporter to shift to. There isn't even a constitution to argue over or a clearly defined election campaign to blow up. When these basic elements of self determination begin to appear in a quasi secure environment, then al Shabaab supporters will take notice. It should be noted that al Shabaab attacks throughout Somalia are designed to create chaos not to strengthen security, murder civilians and prevent governance by democratic rule.

Those Somali elders and local leaders who have grass roots support will naturally flow to the new power curve as AMISOM and local forces spread into the hinterlands. Those leaders who have abused their people will be punished or flee. This “negotiation” process will come as a direct result of military forces continuing to push al Shabaab out of the country and away from their predatory effects on the population.

Any negotiation with al Shabaab forgets the natural political mechanism that Somali’s excel at. The ability for stakeholders to find a mutually beneficial end game. It is the injection of foreign forces (who are specifically tasked not to engage in politics) and a 500 plus gaggle of politicians who barely see Mogadishu let alone local constituencies. Once again the Garowe Conference seeks to be a reality check and inject local power players into the mix. Pushing up a chair for al Shabaab who represent no demographic or constituency would make a mockery of the progress.

Many of the local elders who supported al Shabaab in the past are free to deny that support and move towards a more beneficial status quo from the TFG/AMISOM in preparation for the August changeover to permanent government. But the Somali people are also free to maintain ties with al Shabaab (or any other power broker) if the TFG/AMISOM fails to create a better scenario. This is the appropriate level that negotiations should will take place. Not in Mogadishu or Qatar. Pham and Bruton the policy epicenters of isolationist calls to “do nothing” now claim that “The best that Washington can do now is to close the book on its ill-fated war in Somalia” the well known DC-based Somali experts estimate al-Shabaab’s strength at 7,000 troops and warn U.S. policy makers to engage now in negotiations or face the transnational wrath of Somali diaspora. Essentially to integrate one or all of the main al Shabaab factions into a political process or face “another decade of chaos, anguish, and death.”

Elmi and Ayante don't advocate cut and run but push for a third party (like Qatar as in the current Taliban negotiation scenario) to start peace talks with al Shabaab leadership. “The Somali government and its backers should ... focus on establishing a competent security sector and starting genuine negotiations with those rebels who are interested in a political solution”. Sure, but were exactly do the press ganged locals and eager to die foreign jihadists of al-Shabaab fit into a "competent security sector"?

Authors Elmi and Ayante propose something similar to the 2008 Djibouti agreement that created the TFG as a good example. This is bizarre logic. Ethiopia and the US invaded Somalia to push out the Islamic Courts who, like the early Taliban, wanted to get rid of CIA and criminal-funded warlords. The ICU (like the pre-Kabul Taliban) had the support of the people because they wanted to push to out foreign influence and restore basic justice for common people.

But once entrenched both the Pashtun nationalist Taliban and Hawiye clan-based al-Shabaab were morphed into something quite ugly and nihilist once al Qaeda got their financial and ideological hooks into them. And both Afghanistan and Somalia suffer from a distrusted, incompetent foreign backed government that makes the jurisprudence and goals of a Islamic insurgents seem attractive by comparison.

Al-Shabaab: Political Whiz Kids or Jihadi Thrill Killers?

Both articles are correct in maintaining that at some point Somali people will determine Somali politics but both articles are less impactful in ignoring two major factors.

First of all al-Shabaab is not a home spun construct. It relies on foreign donor money, salafist self importance and an agenda of highly publicized violence to survive. Simply put Somalis do not want a 7th century Saudi based agenda overlaid on their traditionally sufi centric and sophisticated western view of themselves.

Bruton and Pham state, " Some of these leaders, including Mukhtar Robow and Hassan Dahir Aweys, have been linked to al Qaeda, but the United States would do well to tolerate them, because the Somali public generally perceives them as legitimate."

Let us look at the political agendas offered by al Shabaab. Take for example Sheikh Robow aka “Abu Mansur”. He is a 52 year old from Bardale of the Rahanwien, Lisan sub clan. He was a Koranic student who studied in Mogadishu and the University of Khartoum. He worked for the Al Haramein Saudi foundation. In 2000 he fought with al Qaeda in Afghanistan, his specialty as a sniper. Not exactly the most productive skill set for a holy man. After spending less than a year he returned to join the Islamic Courts to become number two to the ICU security chief Yusaf Mohamed Siad aka White Eyes or “Indha-Adde”. Robow is credited with founded “al Shabaab” at that time, essentially a unit made of press-ganged child soldiers.

So far, not much of a political agenda. Robow is famous for bringing in 25-year-old Omar Hammani from Mobile Alabama. Aka Abu Mansoour Amriki the rapping jihadi. In 2008 Robow was considered the impetus behind recruiting foreigners, the December car bomb attacks in Somaliland and Puntland, promoting the desecration of Sufi shrines (which led to the creation of ASWJ) and a Christian church. To add to his political credentials Robow was behind the April 2009 attempt to shoot down a Mogadishu flight carrying a U.S. congressman and the 2010 triple suicide attacks in Uganda that killed 79. Still not picking up on Robow's political credentials and legitimacy?

His political views can be summed up in a 2009 statement made during an al Jazeera interview:

“ Our objectives, by the grace of God, are to see the return of the Islamic Caliphate, the last of which was the Ottoman empire that collapsed in the 1920s. We want to bring that system back and govern the world with God's law.

"We stand for the eradication of oppression and aggression from the world. We are here to protect the weak – that's what we are fighting for. We have been commanded by God to fight such tendencies. He says in the Koran: 'Fight until there is no misguidance, and until all religions lead to God.'

Equating God with other beings is misguidance. We have been commanded to fight until there is no one claiming to be a god on Earth. We want the constitution of the world to be the word of God, and for everyone to have access to justice."

Its hard to see exactly where the negotiation between secular Western backed governments and al Shabaab begins and ends with that viewpoint. However Robow is being pressured by clandestine overtures (and Robow’s ill advised amorous adventures with a foreign national) and Somalia Report has been told that all three of al Shabaab’s leaders have not turned down Plan B which is either a residency visa and quiet removal from the JSOC targeting list. The idea that political negotiations to remove them with a soon to be fired transitional government would shift the paradigm in Somalia are almost laughable.

Secondly there is a grass roots political movement that began in Garowe and will expand into whatever government is formed in August. The current TFG is toast to put it mildly and there is still no relevant mix that dissident al Shabaab members would chose to negotiate with.

A more representative (albeit democratically imperfect) government will be formed with the foreign and military support of the US, UK with proxy and domestic forces supplied by Somalia, Puntland, Uganda Kenya and a “coalition of the billing” type smattering of other African nations (Djibouti, Sierra Leone are good examples). There is simply no incentive to force newly recognized political players like Puntland, ASWJ, Galmadug and tell them to invite al Shabaab to the party. To suggest that democratically recognized groups should be on par with Al Shabaab who is murdering Somali's is a major moral lapse.

But worse the concept of negotiation to bring peace actually flies in the face of what is actually happening in Somalia. There are not only negotiations going on all the time but these discussion are held with the very loud sound of a ticking clock. Not only are top leadership of Somalia in direct contact with Gulf and Western intelligence agencies but their movements inside Somalia and abroad are tracked. The recent success of Reaper strikes indicates the kind of accuracy that can only indicate a deep penetration in their ranks. Bruton and Pham are correct about the deep divisions amongst top al Shabaab commanders but seem to be unaware of the depth of those divisions.

Godane has put Aweys under house arrest in Marka after Aweys accused Godane of being the source of the drone strike that killed their East London commander. Robow is rumored to be in discussions with a Gulf State based on a compromising personal decision he made. Godane aka Mukhtar Abdi Rahman has been seen in Sharjah twice in 2010. His wife Muna Sheikh Abdirahman and children moved their from Hargeisa in 2008 before he launched the car bomb attacks. It would be odd that he wouldn't be approached to opt out of the jihad in exchange for a quiet existence complete with shopping malls and Reaper-free cel phone calls. They have yet to take up those offers.

The foreign jihadis inside Somalia who may return make up the rest of the Western fear factor are tracked closer than internet IPOs. The removal of their protectors from the battle space would make them more likely to go home and seek revenge, not less.

There are about 40 Somali volunteers from the US and another 30 from the UK and 30 or so from Canada fighting (or killed) inside Somalia. The vast majority who are known by name are on watch lists by domestic and international anti terrorism agencies. The few that are anonymous make local law enforcement sweat. Even a negotiated peace with moderate al Shabaab in no way deters these jihadi war tourists from returning home to wreak havoc on the root causes of their disenchantment.

Currently Southern Somalia and Yemen are kill boxes where JPEL-type lists include most of the top al Shabaab leadership as kill or capture targets. With the military advances and steadily increasing lethal pressure on al Shabaab leadership it is difficult to see the upside of negotiating with the number one killers of Somali civilians.

For now the Washington Beltway focus on Somalia is welcome but the suggestions and conclusions could more relevant to what is actually happening on the ground and address the full spectrum of interface between the U.S. government and the people of Somalia.