Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Roll Rastafari Chariot Along - Part III: What Is It Good For?

At the end of Part II of this series (Part I is here), I mentioned that I would seek to analyze the wisdom of our support for Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia as a part of our counterterrorism strategy generally speaking. In the meantime, I got sidetracked with a Part 2.5, and some related follow up posts. At long last I'll turn to this aspect of the story, and in doing so, there are a few issues at play that I want to discuss.

First, I want to be clear that I am not opposed to the use of air strikes - as with the AC-130 gun ships used in Somalia - or other limited military deployments, provided that the intel on the ground is solid, and the risks of large numbers of civilian casualties is not inordinately high. Using the military as the primary tool in counterterrorism operations is a strategic mistake because of the alienation, anger and resistance it engenders in the non-target indigenous population. However, it should be considered as one tool that can be used relatively effective in certain situations.

Ideally, a mixture of intelligence work and law enforcement can be applied - as in the case of the capture of al-Qaeda operatives like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. These have the lowest risk of creating negative blowback, and a live captive is a potential source of valuable intelligence (although under the Bush administration, even our detainee policy is creating considerable negative backlash). But where such avenues are not open, and a target of opportunity presents itself, then the anvil should be struck.

Also, as in the case of Afghanistan, where a pernicious presence such as al-Qaeda has become ingrained with the sovereign, then full on invasion may be necessary - but only after analyzing the costs, benefits and likelihood of realizing the desired outcomes. So there should be a presumption against the use of military force, but not a blanket refusal to use such options under optimal conditions.

The problem with the Somalia episode is that the military was used like an elephant gun to swat a fly. This is anathema to best practices in counterinsurgency - which is really what counterterrorism is all about - because such approaches tend to maximize the negative blowback inherent in military operations, with minimal payoff.

With respect to the Somali campaign, in an effort to get at a small number of al-Qaeda operatives that had been taking sanctuary in Somalia long before the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government ever took power, the US armed, encouraged and eventually supported with ground troops and air power, the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia designed to topple that same ICU government.

One of the problems, as pointed out in Parts 2 and 2.5 of this series, is that the Ethiopian government was not particularly interested in targeting al-Qaeda, but rather was motivated by a desire to weaken its neighbor and regional rival, Somalia. For Ethiopia, a Somalia wracked by chaos, disorder and instability is a desired outcome. Official policy papers have said as much. But for the US, such conditions existing in Somalia - especially when seen as the design of the US government - create fertile soil for the growth of radical, anti-American extremism.

In this sense, using a heavy-handed military approach in order to ferret out a small number of al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia (where they had been long before there was an ICU government), by upending the first government capable of instituting relative calm to Somalia in over fifteen years, is a case of significant short-sightedness. It is a myopia informed by a strategic overview that focuses, unduly, on attacking symptoms while ignoring and even exacerbating the underlying pathologies. For example:

Gayle Smith, a long-time observer of Somalia now with the Center for American Progress, cautioned against a US approach that focuses more on combating terrorism than dealing with the underlying frailty of Somalia which allowed the radicalism to take root in the first place.

"The crisis we're seeing is an outgrowth of a war on terror that we've defined pretty much as a global game of 'gotcha' -- of trying to capture a lot of terrorists, which is important, but without also doing the much harder long term work of dealing with weak and failing states," she said.

Further weakening the strategic case for our involvement in Somalia is the fact that, according to US government officials, we haven't actually killed or captured any of those high value al-Qaeda targets that led us to tag along on Ethiopia's excellent adventure, and chip in for the gas money. If our operations had at least yielded those returns, an argument about the wisdom of our policy choices would have had a more solid foundation. Even then, though, such a stance would have to contend with the long term consequences. As Matt Yglesias mentions, those are starting to manifest:

As we see the anti-Ethiopian Islamist insurgency in Somalia continue to pick up steam, even prompting Ethiopian troops to deploy the legendarily successful counterinsurgency tactic of "return[ing] fire with artillery and heavy machine-gun fire throughout the night," can we ask once again what the United States policy in the Horn of Africa has accomplished. None of the terrorists allegedly being harbored by the Islamic Courts Movement have been captured. The Ethiopians cannot (of course) effectively control the country. It seems that hundreds of Somali civilians have died in various kinds of fighting. And we've effectively opened up another branch campus of Jihad University.

Despite the breathless praise heaped on Ethiopia's military prowess by conservative commentators - mostly an ode to Ethiopia's unrestrained brutality as an effective means to wage counterinsurgency warfare - the reality is that an insurgency is beginning to blossom regardless. As a result, Somali refugees are fleeing the fighting in large numbers - which will likely create strain on its neighbors. Ethiopia will not likely stick around for too long after the costs of occupation and counterinsurgency begin to run prohibitively high, so the instability should grow in time. This, despite the fact that the US government has been, and will be, subsidizing large portions of Ethiopia's effort in this regard. In the aftermath of continuing bloodshed and brutality in a Somalia led by a weak and ineffectual sovereign, anti-American extremism will flourish.

With this in mind, it's fair to ask: what was any of this good for? Forgive me if I conclude: worse than nothing.

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