International Affairs Forum: After the July 11 bombings in Uganda, how high is the potential for more transnational attacks by al-Shabaab?
EJ Hogendoorn: We think that it’s quite high. Clearly elements within al-Shabaab have decided to internationalize the conflict and they have continued to threaten both regional states and troop contributing states. If they have the ability we think they will try to carry out terrorist attacks against other targets.
IA-Forum: What impact do you see the recent AU decision to send more troops to Somalia having? Will it be effective?
We think the main impact is it will escalate conflict in Mogadishu and perhaps elsewhere. At the same time we’re quite concerned that the decision to increase the military capacity of Amisom has been made without a comprehensive political strategy to reestablish peace and stability in south and central Somalia.
IA-Forum: Is the current strategy of supporting the TFG a viable long term solution?
Mr. Hogendoorn: To some degree that depends on the TFG. Our biggest concern is that the TFG hasn’t done the heavy lifting required to expand its ability through larger areas of south and central Somalia, and that without the willingness and capacity to do that any kind of support that the international community is going to give the TFG is only going to have a very limited impact.
IA-Forum: What should the role of the international community be in Somalia? Will military involvement help?
Mr. Hogendoorn: Part of the problem is that Amisom is in an extremely difficult position at the moment. It is clearly the most capable military force in south central Somalia, but it lacks a sufficient number of troops to impose itself in Mogadishu, let alone in south central Somalia. And the idea was that Amisom would only be there to provide support to transitional government institutions until the government was able to build its own military capacity, and that those two combined forces world then help the TFG expand its control over larger parts of Mogadishu and then ultimately over south central Somalia.
But the problem is that the so called security sector reform programs, the training of Somali forces loyal to the TFG, have so far largely failed. While the TFG has some effective units, it is Amisom that is preventing al-Shabaab from taking control of Mogadishu. And because they’re not getting sufficient support from the TFG forces, they don’t have a large enough security perimeter to protect their own bases. That’s allowed al-Shabaab to engage in a strategy where they fire mortars from civilian populated areas into Amisom bases, and the retaliation by Amisom invariably causes civilian casualties. This is obviously driving a wedge between the civilian population and Amisom. That’s something that benefits al-Shabaab in the long term, and al-Shabaab has taken that strategy to the next level by trying to drive a wedge between the troop contributing countries’ people and their governments, where they’re trying to get the Ugandan people to go to their government and say ‘We want you to pull our forces out, this is not only causing troop casualties in Mogadishu but its also resulting in the killing of our own people in our capital.’
Part of the problem is the classic counterinsurgency problem, in that al-Shabaab has a much longer timeline than Amisom does.
IA-Forum: In the long run does al-Shabaab have enough support to effectively maintain a presence in Somalia?
Mr. Hogendoorn: Basically right now al-Shabaab has the most coercive power of the different Somali armed groups in south central Somalia. It’s fair to say that al-Shabaab is in general fairly unpopular with most people in south central Somalia, but because they are the strongest armed group they are able to impose their authority over the region. Changing that dynamic is going to be difficult, it’s possible, but what you have is a big coordination problem—were all the clans to unite against al-Shabaab they would be able to effectively resist the organization, but because they’re unable to cooperate, in part because the TFG isn’t performing its role, individually they are being coerced into supporting al-Shabaab.
IA-Forum: What role does economic development, or the lack of development, play in prolonging the conflict?
Mr. Hogendoorn: Part of the problem is that the lack of peaceful economic opportunities for people greatly increases the potential pool of recruits for all the different armed groups. To some degree the conflict between the TFG and al-Shabaab is not one of ideology but over who can pay their troops better and who can support larger forces. That is obviously an important component.
At the same we at Crisis Group have argued that the first thing we should be focusing on is peace and stability, and from peace and stability would naturally flow economic development, so to some degree we think economic development, at least in south and central Somalia, should not be the priority. That said it needs to be quite clear that when we talk about Somalia we’re talking about three regions, we’re talking about Somaliland, Puntland, and south central Somalia. I certainly think economic development for people in Somaliland and Puntland would be very welcome and very helpful in countering the rise of radical groups in those areas.
IA-Forum: You mentioned Somaliland, can or should Somaliland be a “role model” for Somalia as a whole for finding a level of stability?
Mr. Hogendoorn: Clearly, the lesson from the success of Somaliland and to some degree the more relative success of Puntland is that what is required for peace and stability is a political accommodation among the different clans. And one of the secrets of Somaliland’s success was that it was done from a bottom up approach, where people started with lower levels of clan lineage and got sub-clans to agree and to cooperate. Once you have those lower levels of cooperation, that allowed higher levels of negotiation and cooperation that slowly built up to a government that can represent the whole region and is able impose a fair degree of peace and stability.
IA-Forum: What role does aid play and how can it effectively be used?
Mr. Hogendoorn: Aid can be helpful or it can be harmful just like anywhere else. In the context of Somalia, aid has obviously helped people in dire humanitarian circumstances, but it’s also an incentive in the war economy that benefits certain individuals, some of whom actually benefit from continued conflict. So in some instances poorly planned and sloppily provided assistance has in fact exacerbated the conflict.
IA-Forum: After such a long period of conflict, what lessons can be learned?
Mr. Hogendoorn: One of the things that we are arguing quite strongly is that the one lesson from 20 years of conflict in Somalia should be that the re-imposition of a strong central state cannot work in the current environment in Somalia. What we’ve been arguing is that the TFG needs to become a much thinner transitional and federal government, and that as much power as possible needs to be given to what we call local authorities. The big problem has largely been that all the transitional institutions that have been created over the last 10 to 15 years have tried re-establish a central government in Mogadishu, and invariably one clan has sought to capture that government for its own benefit and to the disadvantage of all the other clans. So most clans are deeply suspicious of any attempt to try to recreate a national government that is modeled on the European or North American nations.
The problem then is how do you do this, how does the international community support that kind of a devolved government – without going through the central government? That is a challenge because most donor agencies and institutions are generally used to dealing with a government that then disperses aid throughout the territory that it controls. But, unfortunately, were money given to the TFG now that money will invariably stay in Mogadishu and will not trickle down to local authorities.
E.J. Hogendoorn is Horn of Africa Project Director for International Crisis Group. He has also served as Arms Expert for the United Nations Panel of Experts on Sudan and United Nations Panel of Experts on Somalia.
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