World Focus: Surrender to al-Shabaab may be first step to victory for Somalia

The government has no authority and exists only in embassies and summit rooms out of the country

Daniel Howden
Friday 30 July 2010 00:00

Whatever its failings the transitional government in Mogadishu has to be preferable to an absolute takeover of Somalia by the radical Islamists of al-Shabaab. This has been the red line that cannot be crossed in international thinking about the devastated Horn of Africa nation.

It was reflected in the decision this week by African Union (AU) leaders to bolster the peacekeeping force in response to bombings by al-Shabaab in Uganda.

The AU, whose Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers are all that prevents al-Shabaab from defeating the government, could not back down in the face of Islamic terrorism and withdraw its troops.

Instead the strategy is to increase the AU peacekeeping force to more than 10,000 and push back against al-Shabaab to create space for the government to govern.

Despite the predictable tough stance at the African leaders' summit, and increased financial support from the US, there is mounting scepticism about whether the red line is still worth defending.

First some harsh truths. There is no peace to keep in Somalia. The current incarnation of the transitional government has failed. All foreign intervention in the last 20 years has made the situation worse.

Al-Shabaab controls most of south and central Somalia with the foreign-backed government hemmed into a few streets of the capital, where it is attacked daily – there is no truce to defend.

The government of former geography teacher Shaik Sharif Shaik Ahmed has not delivered on coherent government; on basic services; on building security services; or on alliances with other factions. His government has not acted as a rallying point for Somalis and has instead barricaded itself into the presidential palace where it has indulged in wasteful infighting.

The last time Somalia had a functioning central government was a dictatorship which fell in 1991. After that, a disastrous small-scale US intervention against competing warlords ended in ignominy with dead US soldiers trailed through Mogadishu. The larger UN mission that followed was also a failure.

The even more calamitous Ethiopian invasion in 2006, backed by Washington, created al-Shabaab. In each case the presence of foreign forces has served to galvanise Somalia's warring factions and helped to radicalise a country with no history of Islamic extremism.

Now the battered AU force of 6,000 – whose shelling of residential areas in Mogadishu in response to insurgent attacks has made it unpopular – will be reinforced. The strategy is not bankrupt, its backers say, as a tougher approach will give the government a chance to turn the situation around.

Another approach, that of "constructive disengagement" is being called for more loudly than before.

In this scenario the AU would stage a phased withdrawal and the failed government would fall. Al-Shabaab would declare victory. Rather than spawning an "al-Qa'ida state" this would be a hollow victory for the Islamists who would be submerged in their own divisions and vulnerable to collapse.

What this strategy recognises is that the government has no authority and exists only in embassies and summit rooms outside the country.

Chopping off heads and hands, stoning women and girls to death, blowing up medical students and switching off music and sport has left al-Shabaab feared but not loved. A triumphant march into Villa Somalia could be the beginning of the end for the complex alliances inside the group.

The real alternatives may lie in increased support for Somaliland, where a democratic election was successfully staged last month, and the semi-autonomous region of Puntland, which has resisted the Islamic militia. Other armed factions such as Ahlu Sunna already fight al-Shabaab more convincingly than government forces.

Foreign-sponsored state building has failed Somalia and the "more of the same" strategy is really aimed at containing the violence, regardless of how bad it gets.

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