Sometime during the past 21 years of Somalia’s wars, there came a moment when the destruction reached such an epic level that survival became incongruous. In downtown Mogadishu, where houses spill their stone guts into the street and roads are buried under two decades of rubble, 250,000 people live in egg-shaped pods of brushwood and plastic tied together with string. Inside the gray skeleton of the seafront al-Uruba Hotel, on whose gaily tiled balconies ministers and ambassadors once enjoyed Sangiovese and canapés before a view of the Indian Ocean, a shiny white prefab Ugandan-army canteen serves barbecued beef and spicy cabbage to African Union peacekeepers. On the front line past Afgoye, 30 km to the west, sits a riverfront palace owned by an Arab prince where, through war, famine and intermittent occupation, the staff has cared for a lone ostrich in a garden of palms and mango trees.
Hundreds of thousands have died in Somalia’s wars, 150,000 in last year’s famine alone. And in the vacuum left by the dead and the state that perished with them, a violent anarchy reigned in which clan fought clan; an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, opened a new front in the global jihad; and Somali pirates preyed on a major artery of 21st century global trade in the Indian Ocean.
The chaos makes a nonsense of the delicately worded mandate under which the U.N. dispatched the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to protect Somalia’s interim government from the Islamists, and its commanders admit to casting the mandate aside. “This is not peacekeeping or peace enforcement,” says Brigadier General Paul Lokech, commander of the 6,000-strong Ugandan contingent, which has lost more than 1,000 soldiers since 2007. “There is no peace to keep.”
But in this unlikeliest of places, where foreign intervention has failed for so long, a new approach is having sudden, stunning results. AMISOM’s pan-African force, bankrolled by the U.S. and Europe, is winning. Mogadishu is all but free of fighting for the first time in a generation, and AMISOM is steadily pushing peace out across the country. Inside AMISOM lines, businesses are reviving. Schools are reopening. Refugees are going home. Even Mogadishu’s beaches are open. After two decades of living day to day, Somalis are finally able to plan a future. The implications for the wider world are just as big. For the U.S., AMISOM’s creation may be as much about defense cuts and a desire to correct the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq than any great leap of military thinking. But what began as an expedient response to hopelessness is evolving into a cut-rate miracle. The lessons for U.S. counterterrorism efforts — and U.N. peacekeeping and Africa’s ability to fix its own problems — are fundamental.
The Ugandans arrived in 2007. After a bloody block-by-block battle for Mogadishu that they began in 2009, a joint force of Ugandans and Burundians pushed the last al-Shabab fighters out of Mogadishu earlier this year, then, at the end of May, captured Afgoye, a key crossroads in southern Somalia. In the far west, the Ethiopian army, which invaded in pursuit of al-Shabab independently of AMISOM last September, took the city of Baidoa in February. To the south, the Kenyan army, which invaded in October, also independently, initially lost momentum in Somalia’s southern marshes but, after accepting AMISOM’s command and reinforcements from Sierra Leone, plan to converge on the southern port of Kismayo with the Ugandans. Meanwhile, a battalion of Djiboutians are deploying north of Mogadishu. Inside the front lines, the first of hundreds of policemen from Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Kenya began arriving in Mogadishu in June.
And if AMISOM is winning, al-Shabab is losing. The Islamists are plagued by violent internal division. Hundreds of their fighters have defected. The group is short of resources: the chaos of the Arab Spring cut funds from the Middle East, and loss of territory deprives them of Somalis to tax or recruit. At a Ugandan army camp outside Afgoye, Ali Absher Mohamed, 24, who defected after fighting for al-Shabab for four years, says the group, particularly its foreign commanders, made the same mistake of so many earlier interventions: behaving as if they owned the place. “I saw them harassing civilians, butchering people, punishing them for no reason,” he says. “They never bothered to get the support of the people. So they have no power now, no funds, no weapons. Everyone is thinking of defecting.”
New Model Armies
Like the Taliban (meaning “the students”) in Afghanistan, al-Shabab (meaning “the youth”) grew out of popular opposition to the warlords, whose lawless rule followed the collapse of the central state in 1991. Initially al-Shabab was the enforcer for the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an alliance of clerics and judges that restored some order to Mogadishu for six months in 2006 by liberal use of amputation and stoning. But at the end of 2006, after an ICU leader unwisely declared a jihad against Somalia’s historic rival Ethiopia, Ethiopia invaded, overthrew the ICU and installed a secular government, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), with Ethiopia as its bodyguard.
While the ICU faded, al-Shabab grew stronger by presenting itself as a force for social justice and nationalist resistance against the Ethiopians and African Union peacekeepers protecting the TFG. By 2008, the group was operating freely across southern Somalia and — reinforced by 250 more globally focused ethnic Somalis from the U.S., Europe and Australia and veteran jihadists from the Middle East and Asia — venturing farther afield. In 2008, it killed 30 people in a series of bombings in Somaliland, the autonomous region of northern Somalia. In July 2010, it massacred 76 in twin suicide attacks on crowds watching the World Cup final in Kampala, Uganda. Since Kenya invaded, a string of al-Shabab bomb and grenade attacks there has claimed 60 more lives. In the latest, on July 1, 17 people died and more than 60 were wounded when a group of militants threw grenades through the windows of two churches in Garissa, near the Somali border, then gunned down the congregants as they fled.
AMISOM’s success against al-Shabab holds some important lessons. This is, as the African Union mantra has it, “Africans solving African problems” and a robust rejection of the sometimes fair but increasingly outdated and racist notion that Africans cannot or will not manage their own affairs. Despite AMISOM’s willingness to wage war instead of pretend to keep peace, the key is not aggression. Soon after their 2007 arrival, the Ugandans earned themselves a toxic reputation by shelling civilian areas where they suspected al-Shabab was operating. But guided since 2008 by advisers from a nonprofit U.S. military and logistics contractor, Bancroft, they learned to win Somali hearts and minds by advancing slowly, carefully skirting civilians, using snipers and offering free hospital care to civilians. “Today the Ugandans are one of the best urban-fighting armies in the world,” says Bancroft military adviser Richard Rouget, a veteran of several African wars. Proof of that is a sight never before seen in Mogadishu: smiling children waving at passing soldiers.
There are also lessons for U.N. peacekeeping. Troops from countries directly affected by Somalia’s instability have proved far more effective and cheaper than blue helmets from around the globe. AMISOM won most of its victories with 12,000 troops (a number soon rising to 17,000) and has cost its funders, Europe and the U.S., $1.1 billion and $656 million, respectively, since 2006 — a bargain by the standards of international troop deployments. At his office within AMISOM’s security cordon, U.N. special representative to Somalia Augustine Mahiga says, “There definitely has to be rethinking at the U.N.”
As significant are the implications for U.S. counterterrorism strategy. In the decade after 9/11, the U.S. response relied on mass troop deployment at a trillion-dollar cost. Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were overthrown and Osama bin Laden eventually killed. But that response created the widespread perception that America loved oil and hated Muslims. It also led to accusations that the U.S. had actually increased instability, even given bin Laden precisely what he wanted: a global conflagration between believer and infidel from which, he hoped, a new world order would emerge. Scandals over methods used in the war on terrorism were numerous — the use of interrogation techniques broadly denounced as forms of torture at Abu Ghraib and Bagram airfield, the denial of human and legal rights at Guantánamo, the use of drone assassinations, occasional unsanctioned massacres by rogue U.S. troops.
The U.S. Africa command, Africom, was set up in 2007 with the mission of operating abroad without alienating as many people or costing as much. No longer will the U.S. military pursue “long-term nation building with large military footprints,” said President Barack Obama in January. On the ground, says Africom’s commander, General Carter Ham, that translates to 2,000 analysts, researchers and strategists based in Stuttgart, Germany, who fund and train African armies to fight terrorism while helping with surveillance and regional cooperation. Underscoring this new way of operating, Africom has no assigned combat troops. On the rare occasions it deploys force, operations are strictly limited in scope, like aerial strikes against al-Shabab’s leaders or special operations against pirates, and are often underwritten by humanitarian concern, as in Libya and with the operation against Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Africom’s biggest weapon is U.S. government money. In addition to funding AMISOM, the U.S. pays for hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Somalia and grants to the transitional government and has offered $33 million in rewards for the arrest, capture or death of seven of al-Shabab’s leaders. Ham calls the new approach “partnering.” In the Cold War, such arrangements were known as proxy wars. A more modern term might be outsourcing.
Spoiling the Spoilers
For now, AMISOM’s military progress is being matched by economic and political revival. Rents in Mogadishu have tripled in months as expatriate Somalis return to buy up and renovate property. “Business is going fine,” says shopkeeper Lela Abdi, 20, who sells sandals, soap and sodas from a bright blue shop she built from the remains of a blown-out Italianate colonnade that was once her family home. “Everyone from the neighborhood is coming back.”
In the face of an AMISOM threat to make no distinction between al-Shabab and recalcitrant warlords, Somalia’s fractious clans are publicly supporting a political resuscitation. On July 31, Somalia agreed on a new draft constitution, and by Aug. 20 it should also have a new parliament and a new, permanent central government, its first since the warlords overthrew President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991.
But given the Somali clans’ history of violent self-interest, it would be naive to trust clan leaders to buy into the big picture. “There are warlords and others who want to create a crisis so that there is no change in the status quo,” says Mahiga. “Some are in parliament, some outside. Some head militias. Some are in the ranks of the army. They rear their heads whenever there is opportunity for confusion.”
Just as problematic for a stable future for Somalia would be division among al-Shabab’s conquerors. Kenya has long-standing plans to create a semi-autonomous buffer state on its border with Somalia to insulate it from the instability farther north. Those plans are unlikely to be welcomed by any new central Somali government, to which they would represent a loss of territory, or by Uganda, which, according to a U.N. official based in Nairobi, has ambitions for a southern Somali route to the Indian Ocean, bypassing Kenya. Ethiopia, meanwhile, remains a wild card. Despite its troops’ being a more or less constant presence in Somalia since 2006, it refuses to join AMISOM and reserves the right to reinvade at will, particularly if it feels the security of its eastern state Ogaden, whose population is predominantly ethnic Somali, is threatened.
Some wonder whether ending Somalia’s wars is even in the interest of the foreign armies currently on its soil. Many African governments are adept at inflating crises to attract aid. In the same manner, says Bronwyn Bruton, an East Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council, “for African armies, their incentive is to declare whoever they are fighting to be al-Qaeda, [for which] they get cash, an allies badge and a free pass on bad behavior.” Joseph Margulies, lead counsel for the remaining Guantánamo prisoners, says the proxy model — what he calls “counter-terrorism 2.0” — is in many ways a smart evolution from Iraq and Afghanistan. “You reduce footprint and visibility,” he says. “There’s very little risk to U.S. life. There’s very little political blowback.” But he cautions, “The history of this kind of funding and proxy deals is not a good one. It always leads to foreign policy and moral bankruptcy.”
Perhaps the biggest doubt hanging over the operation against al-Shabab is the possibility that beating the militant group in Somalia would just encourage it to move elsewhere. “I’m sometimes asked, What keeps you awake at night?” says Ham. “The first scenario that comes to my mind is a young Somali American who finds his way to Somalia, gets trained [and], because he’s a U.S.-passport holder, finds his way back to the U.S. and conducts some sort of attack.”
Ham’s African allies are already experiencing exactly that kind of blowback. The attacks on Somaliland, Kampala and Kenya were carried out by a regional arm of al-Shabab that, according to a U.N. report last year, has built extensive funding, recruiting and training networks in East Africa, particularly on Kenya’s Muslim-dominated coast, now suddenly home to a vociferous separatist movement. U.S. diplomats report that al-Shabab is reaching out to other Islamists in Yemen and Nigeria. Recent arrests suggest that it still attracts jihadists from around the world. A British man, Jermaine Grant, 29, of East London, is on trial in Mombasa, accused of plotting attacks there, and in June, Emrah Erdogan, a German of Turkish origin, was arrested in Tanzania on suspicion of carrying out at least one of the Nairobi blasts. Bruton, previously a skeptic on al-Qaeda’s presence in East Africa, now says, “I see things incubating. There are a lot of disaffected young men, a lot of new converts, a lot of people who have received training and indoctrination.” Adapting Margulies’ terminology, she adds, “We might see al-Shabab evolve into al-Qaeda 2.0.”
In a Nairobi hotel room, a Kenyan man named Ali Warsame tells how he escaped from al-Shabab in 2010, two years after being asked by his Kenyan imam to travel to Somalia to perform social work and then being forced at gunpoint to fight for the group. He makes a stunningly full list of the nationalities inside al-Shabab — Somali, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Sudanese, Tanzanian, Algerian, Libyan, Pakistani, Syrian, Saudi Arabian, British, American, Canadian, Australian, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. The defeat of al-Shabab in Somalia might promise a new dawn for the world’s most shattered nation, he says. But with such a global membership, it’s unlikely to finish al-Shabab. “They have this mentality: Never go home, never have peace,” he says. “Just create chaos and terror.”
— with reporting by Mohammed Dahir / Nairobi and Alan Boswell / Nairobi and Mogadish