The recent horrific bombings in Uganda, carried out by the Somali jihadist group Al-Shabaab on its own admission, should draw our attention to the regional threat to East Africa emanating from Somalia. Indeed, the group declared in February 2010 that the "jihad of Horn of Africa must be combined with the international jihad led by the al-Qaeda network."
It is clear, therefore, that if Al-Shabaab gains sufficient control of Somalia, it will use the country as a base to launch operations against neighboring countries. In fact, the group has in the past threatened to wage jihad in Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi.
This raises a simple question: What can we do about Somalia?
Before we can answer this, let us begin by reviewing what we know is not working -- that is, the present strategy. Currently, the U.N., the African Union, and the West back the weak Somali central government as Al-Shabaab controls much of central and southern Somalia. Meanwhile, Uganda, Burundi, and other African nations have deployed a multinational peacekeeping force in the country. On occasion, the U.S. carries out drone attacks as well.
Nonetheless, Al-Shabaab is continuing to gain ground. The presence of foreign troops is deeply resented by many Somalis, as was the case when Ethiopian troops invaded to oust the ruling Islamic Courts Union in late 2006 for fear that Somalia would become a base for international Islamist militants. Though Ethiopia withdrew in 2009, the presence of African Union troops appears only to have allowed Al-Shabaab to win more recruits.
However, a recent editorial in the U.K. newspaper The Independent rightly noted that "outside intervention has only made matters worse" in Somalia but then went on to suggest that the outside world instead "needs to start from the specifics in Somalia and build peace and reconciliation from the ground up."
This alternative proposal is vague at best, and not valid when considered in practical terms. With whom would we work? How could we avoid alienating certain tribal factions? Above all, how can one work towards reconciliation in the face of an active, ideologically driven insurgency? The proposed solution would at least seem to require engaging in an indefinitely long occupation and the arduous task of nation-building. The latter would be especially problematic in Somalia, which ranks bottom out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) produced by Transparency International.
Thus, here lies the central problem: Overt help and intervention only undermine the stability of the country further, but at the same time, Somalia cannot simply be abandoned to its fate, or the whole of East Africa will be destabilized further as well.
Rather, a new approach is required: containment. This doctrine implies a number of policy recommendations. Foremost among them will be the gradual withdrawal of foreign troops from Somalia, along with ending drone attacks. At present, the African Union could well find itself in a quagmire similar to that which U.S. forces faced when they intervened in Somalia in 1992. Bill Clinton's approach, seemingly identical to what The Independent is suggesting, ended up in disaster as the population, not seeing any benefits of war-as-social-work manifesting quickly, began to resent the presence of American troops, culminating in a humiliating withdrawal in 1994.
We should therefore limit ourselves to two things: backing native Somali forces opposed to Al-Shabaab and trying to cut off external sources of support to the group. We should also issue a stern warning to Al-Shabaab that any aggression against other countries will be met with severe retribution, which could deter the group from pursuing operations beyond Somalia.
Firstly, we should recognize the fact that Somalia has never truly been united since the fall of Dictator Siad Barré in 1991. Hence, we should back the only stable form of government in the country that has any true popular support: i.e., the de facto independent government of the currently unrecognized nation Somaliland, a bastion of freedom and democracy relative to much of the Muslim world. Somaliland encompasses the northwestern part of Somalia and has a 60,000-strong military force that is engaged in conflict with Al-Shabaab. Full diplomatic recognition of Somaliland, together with strong and increased support for its government and military, could serve as a buffer force against Al-Shabaab, potentially diverting its attention from waging international jihad.
Second, cutting off external support to the group will require cracking down further on piracy in the region and monitoring Somali communities in the West. As the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program pointed out, funds from piracy have been used to support Al-Shabaab activities onshore. In addition, up to forty Somali-Americans have returned to Somalia to fight alongside Al-Shabaab, and reports have emerged that mosques in Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali émigré community in the U.S., have been recruiting grounds for Al-Shabaab.
Such changes in policy, even if not able to eradicate Al-Shabaab, will at least help to contain any threats posed to the region.