Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Smash a Mole

Colin Thomas-Jensen at the Wonk Room reminds us that tomorrow marks the ten-year anniversary of the US embassy bombings in Kenya. Three al-Qaeda operatives, thought to have had a hand in those attacks, have been active in the Horn of Africa region ever since. During this span, the US government has worked closely with regional allies like Ethiopia and Kenya in an effort to track down the wanted al-Qaeda members. As Thomas-Jensen points out, the al-Qaeda members have, purportedly, passed in and out of Somalia frequently during this ten-year period - taking advantage of the lack of a functioning state to move about freely.

In December of 2006, however, US policy in the region veered in a perilous direction when the US backed Ethiopia's invasion of neighboring Somalia, undertaken for the ostensible purpose of toppling the then-ruling Islamic Courts Union (ICU) regime and replacing it with the exiled, and unpopular, Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The ICU was an Islamist regime with reported ties to al-Qaeda - some real, and some imagined. To some extent, Ethiopia exaggerated the ICU's ties to al-Qaeda (as the TFG has continued to do) in order to secure US support (as an aside, Ethiopia has gone back to this "terrorism" well against other regional rivals, like Eritrea).

Regardless of the extent to which Ethiopia hyped the al-Qaeda connection, the strategy designed to limit al-Qaeda's range of motion and support in the region was ineffective at best - though outright counterproductive in many respects. Instead of applying sound counterinsurgency doctrine - seeking to stabilize the region and thus deny would-be terrorists safe havens and support afforded by failed states and radicalized populations - we adopted policies that have actually exacerbated the conditions conducive to al-Qaeda's success.

Thomas-Jensen calls it "Whac-a-Mole" but it's closer to "Smash a Mole":

But a ten-year manhunt is not a strategy to deal with the root of violent extremism in the region — the 18 years of political unrest and bloodshed in southern Somalia. The U.S. supported Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia to oust Islamists from power and install a transitional government in the capital Mogadishu. Yet as in Iraq, the invaders had no post-war political strategy, and Ethiopia — Somalia’s historic enemy — was quickly bogged down in a brutal counter-insurgency against Islamist and clan-based militia groups.

The insurgent attacks and Ethiopia’s scorched-earth response have driven two-thirds of Mogadishu’s residents — some 700,000 people — into the harsh Somali countryside. With rising food prices and failed crops, aid agencies are warning of famine. Meanwhile, the Bush administration supports Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia and, with help from Ethiopian intelligence, U.S. forces have launched at least four airstrikes targeting al-Qaeda suspects and Islamist leaders inside Somalia. Only one airstrike killed its intended target, and U.S. attacks have resulted in civilian casualties. Behind closed doors, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies refer to the U.S. strategy as ‘whac-a-mole.’ [...]

‘Whac-a-mole’ is not a viable strategy, and as the corrupt and abusive transitional Somali government hurtles toward collapse, the Bush administration is best advised to put the mallet down and pick up the phone. No one is saying that rebuilding a Somali state is an easy task, but sustained high-level diplomacy and close coordination with allies is the only way to help Somalis forge an inclusive government that can pull the country out of the abyss.

For those keeping score, our policies in Somalia have netted us the following thus far:

Low-to-non-existent benefits in terms of neutralizing known al-Qaeda operatives while the region has been further radicalized and support for al-Qaeda has surged locally. There is increased instability and violence that allows al-Qaeda and other terrorists to move about, and conduct business, freely (the ICU had provided stability to the capital of Mogadishu which has since evaporated). There has been an increase in the number of dead from the flaring of the conflict, massive refugee flows and widespread humanitarian crises befalling the beleagured Somali people. Our overt support for anti-democratic and belligerent elements has led to a sharp upswing in anti-Americanism as we have become closely identified with the brutality of Ethiopia and the TFG.

Heckuva job.

In assessing just how misguided US government policy in the region has been, it is important to recall that Ethiopia and Somalia are long standing regional rivals that have fought several wars and other smaller conflicts over the preceding decades (there is an ongoing territorial dispute over the Ogaden region, which is ethnically Somali, but falls within Ethiopia's borders). One of the Ethiopian government's stated regional goals is to ensure that Somalia remains weak and divided so as to forestall Somalia pressing its claims on Ogaden. Further, Ethiopia has an atrocious record on human rights domestically, and during its occupation of Somalia - in particular, it has acted with extreme brutality toward the ethnically-Somali residents of Ogaden.

Yet, instead of conducting a careful, narrowly tailored counterterrorism operation in Somalia, we backed the Ethiopian plan to invade and occupy regardless of the likely destabilization that would result. It's as if we took Ethiopia at its word that what it really wanted to do was help out poor, languishing Somalia, and that it would be greeted with flowers and candies by its long-time adversary.

It's a pattern that we have repeated in other contexts: We allow our terrorism tunnel vision to blind us to the various regional ambitions and imperatives of the dubious allies we increasingly choose on the narrow criteria that they (say they) will help us to fight terrorism. Reminds me of the recent stunning admission about the Bush administration's lack of appreciation of the centrality of India in terms of Pakistan's regional outlook:

One thing we never understood is that India has always been the major threat for Pakistan," said former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlain, now the president of the Middle East Institute.

Let's hope the next administration appreciates the interlocking regional rivalries of Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea (as well as intra-Somali tribal rivalries) a little better than the current one. That, and the notion that sometimes smashing everything in sight is not an effective means to disrupt the actions of a handful of al-Qaeda operatives.

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