Somalia, US, and the Dual-Track Letdown

Somalia in particular and the Horn of Africa in general are at such a volatile stage that any misstep — domestic or foreign — could only further exacerbate their perilous condition.  One such potential misstep is the recently proposed US foreign policy toward Somalia known as the Dual-Track approach.

First, a brief background: In 2006 — over a decade after the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident that caused Somalia and the United States to drift apart — the US showed renewed interest in Somalia.  As a result, in recent years, the US has led donor nations in generosity — notwithstanding the fact that roughly ninety percent of the over $200 million it has donated to Somalia is earmarked to AMISOM: the African Union troops there to enforce peace.

Second, since President Obama’s historic Cairo Speech, the anticipation was high in Somalia as it was in other parts of the Islamic world that the Obama administration would finally do away with that all too familiar foreign policy based on the global war on terror.  And, for almost two years, while the US intelligence agencies debated what the new policy toward Somalia would be, there was a growing sense of hope that the new administration would conscientiously craft a policy “based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Then, all of a sudden, there appeared the Dual-Track approach!

In a nutshell, this policy is based on engaging diplomatically and economically any and all Somali political actors, armed or unarmed, as long as those entities are not supporting the extremist group al-Shabaab — even if these actors are overtly or covertly opposed to the Transitional Federal Government.

Understandably, the impetus driving this new policy is the impatience caused by the rapid change of Somalia’s security landscape in the past two decades.  In addition to the growing violent extremism, there is the transnational threat of piracy, arms smuggling, human and drug trafficking.  Needless to say, these threats are further complicated by the slow progress of the TFG in building a robust security apparatus and broadening its territorial control.

But, in an apparent effort to adapt its security and strategic needs to the reality on the ground, the US seems to have inadvertently stepped into a clan minefield that could cause the TGF, and indeed the US itself, a significant political setback and long-term threat.

While providing economic incentive and the prestige of diplomatic engagement might generally lure or charm interest groups, in clan-centric communities that understand federalism only through the prism of the dominant clan’s right to control resources and hoard power, it’s likely to have an adverse effect.

And while this is a “US policy made in Washington” it is hard to ignore how closely it resembles another failed approach to Somalia.

Neighboring Ethiopia has unsuccessfully been pursuing almost a similar policy for two decades.  It did not succeed, because, on one hand, it undermined the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Somali state; and on the other, as a result of the zero-sum competition between clans, it sowed seeds of division, marginalization, and hate that perpetuated violence and chaos.

While it still retains friendly relations with the TFG, Ethiopia has unilaterally been engaging “Somaliland” and “Puntland” in all diplomatic, military, and economic fronts as if these two political entities had the absolute autonomy to frame their respective foreign, defense, and monitory policies that are independent of Somalia.

Make no mistake, Somaliland and Puntland had legitimate grievances that compelled them to explore drastic secessionist and semi-secessionist options.  They have taken their matters into their own hands and since become success stories that should make all Somalis proud.  Both have established a semblance of peace in the northwestern and northeastern regions.  On the other hand, their actions have lent a façade of authenticity to the so-called “building blocks approach” that some special interest groups were adamantly pushing in the past two decades.

The premise of that approach is an ill-conceived notion that Somalia could never sustain itself as a nation-state and that its people can only coexist as clan-based enclaves that are independent of each other.  The failure of the state, according to these groups, is irreversible and permanent.

However, can these clan-based building blocks ensure sustainable security and stability?

Clan demarcations are intertwined both in Somaliland and Puntland, so distrust and territorial dispute have kept these two successful communities apart.  And even more complex dynamics exist in the recently formed Hiranland and the soon-to-come — should this trend continue — Jubaland and Banadirland.  And, a preview of the new violence that is likely to ignite in each is already playing out in Puntland.

Back to the Dual-Track approach: One of the most detrimental obstacles to this approach would come from each regionally-based partner’s unwillingness to participate in positive engagement on matters of mutual interest or collaborative coexistence with the free-floating political entity next door.  Any skeptic would only have to review Somaliland and Puntland’s record of collaboration in the many years that each was operating independently of the Somali government.

In conclusion: If there is any evidence that the best bulwark against the spread of violent extremism in Somalia is found through fragments of clannish polities and regions that function independently of the state, then both the US and Somalia ought to shout “Eureka!” in unison.  If not, the likely outcome is pigeonholed security schemes and safe zones under the command of various dominant clans in partnership with contracted private security companies (who are accountable to no one).  And this, needless to say, would only prove the best recruitment campaign for al-Shabaab.

If this Dual-Track approach promises any hope for sustainable peace and security in Somalia, it is found in the words of Johnnie Carson, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, who recently said “. . . we decide what to do, we don’t base our decisions on what Ethiopia might think is appropriate and we’ll reserve the right to change this policy whenever we want.”

Abukar Arman is Somalia’s Special Envoy to the United States.

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