Thursday, March 11, 2010

Council on Foreign Relations report on Somalia

The Council on Foreign Relations released a report on March 10 titled "Somalia: A New Approach" by Bronwyn E. Bruton. I was one of the people on the advisory committee who offered comments on the report in its earlier drafts. The report has much to commend it and deserves a careful read by anyone interested in Somalia. The strength of the report from my optic is the call for avoiding an overly-zealous U.S. counter-terrorist policy in the region, urging reform of TFG structures so that they become more inclusive, a focus on decentralized development initiatives, urging Ethiopia not to send troops back into Somalia, engaging Middle Eastern partners on the Somali issue and the recommendations dealing with Somali piracy. The report contains several conclusions and recommendations with which I am not in agreement.
  1. The report begins with the premise that the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is doomed to fail. While the history of Somali governments since 1991 gives credence to that assumption, and the TFG is admittedly very weak, I am not convinced that it is destined to fail. The fact that the TFG under President Ahmed’s leadership has lasted more than a year has surprised many experts on Somalia. More importantly, I would argue that the TFG is stronger today than it was six months ago. This does not ensure that it will succeed, but it is premature to conclude that it will fail.
  2. The report also assumes that it is possible to negotiate with elements of the extremist al-Shabaab organization, which by its own admission is now linked to al-Qaeda. The report urges that the TFG should try to draw in leaders of al-Shabaab. At another point, the report says "the United States and its partners can encourage the pragmatic, nationalist and opportunistic elements of the Shabaab to break with their radical partners by adopting a position of neutrality toward all local political groupings..." The report also notes that al-Shabaab is susceptible to realignment under the right conditions. It may be possible to peal away some of the al-Shabaab rank and file, but there is no indication that there are any pragmatic leaders in al-Shabaab today. They seem to have become more radicalized with each passing month. In addition, there has been a significant increase in foreign influence in the organization. Negotiating with al-Shabaab's leadership strikes me as wishful thinking. In any event, the United States should stay out of internal Somali negotiations; leave this up to the Somalis.
  3. The report calls for a reorganization of the TFG under a technocratic prime minister and a council of leaders that includes Sheikh Sharif. I see no point in this. The current prime minister is a technocrat. Creating new institutions and shuffling people around will only create confusion at a time when the TFG seems to be gaining some traction. This is no time to restructure the government.
  4. Finally, the report suggests the U.S. should consider a U.S. Navy ship visit to Puntland and Somaliland ports. This not only contradicts the report's earlier recommendation that calls for less American involvement in Somalia, but it would raise all kinds of concerns among Somalis about American intentions in the country. This is a very bad idea.

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