Negotiating With Al-Shabaab Will Get America Out of Somalia

“If this means more fire power, it will mean only more misery for the Somali people and their regional neighbors.”

Three civilians run away from the scene of an explosion.
Civilians evacuate from the scene of an explosion in KM4 street in the Hodan district of Mogadishu on October 14, 2017. (Feisal Omar / Reuters)

When Ethiopian troops, with the Bush administration’s help, invaded Somalia on Christmas Day 2006 to remove a government suspected of sponsoring Islamic terrorists, it was assumed the war would be over quickly. Ten years later, it’s bloodier than ever. More than 300 people were killed in a truck bomb attack in the capital of Mogadishu on Saturday, and a huge section of the city, previously considered relatively safe, now lies in ruins.

Mogadishu is guarded by Somali government troops, but the terrorists, members of Somalia's own al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabaab, hid their bombs under sacks of sugar, rice and other foods. Delivery trucks are usually inspected, but the bombers may have had connections to local businessmen and even security officers who let them through. Most worrying, their sophisticated explosives may have been obtained from the very U.S.-backed peacekeepers who are supposed to be fighting the terrorists. As more details emerge, it is becoming brutally clear that Washington’s militarized approach to the Somali crisis is backfiring. Ghastly as al-Shabaab is, negotiating with the group may be the only road to peace.

The United States and Britain have been supporting an African Union peacekeeping force known as the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to defend Somalia against al-Shabaab since 2007. In 2010, Washington expanded AMISOM’s mandate, and it routed the group from Mogadishu the following year. Kenyan troops joined the fray the following year and in retaliation, al-Shabaab widened its field of operations beyond Somalia, bombing shopping malls, schools, and restaurants throughout eastern Africa. Its targets included Nairobi’s fashionable Westgate Mall, where 67 people were killed in 2013, and Garissa University, where 148 were killed in 2015. Within Somalia, al-Shabaab continued to control much of the countryside and has proved all but impossible to dislodge.

A year ago, the Obama administration escalated the war yet again, with increasing air and drone strikes and ground raids in an attempt to push al-Shabaab from Somalia once and for all. That escalation failed to squelch the militants, who continued to kill AMISOM troops and bomb civilian targets inside Somalia. In March, the Trump administration launched an even more aggressive approach by designating Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” granting U.S. forces a more flexible mandate to launch attacks. More anti-Shabaab airstrikes followed, and the group responded with more car bombs, assassinations, and now, Saturday’s hideous blast, which may be the deadliest in Somalia’s history.

This war has been a march of folly from day one. After years of instability, Somalia was taken over in June 2006 by a moderate Islamist coalition known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). For the first time in a generation, the streets were safe, the ports were open, garbage was collected, and the courts were dealing with the enormous backlog of contract disputes and other matters. The ICU eschewed the harsher forms of Sharia law such as stonings and amputations, and girls were encouraged to go to school.

Then the Bush administration, convinced, probably incorrectly, that the ICU was protecting al-Qaeda operatives responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, sent navy ships and other artillery to assist Ethiopian troops as they proceeded to flatten Mogadishu, causing three-quarters of its population to flee. This brutal assault radicalized the ICU’s youth wing, al-Shabaab, which had committed virtually no atrocities while the ICU held power. After the invasion, al-Shabaab began receiving support from enraged Arab supporters and the group has since become a member of the al-Qaeda network.

Washington’s reaction to Saturday’s bombing was swift and predictable. “Such cowardly attacks reinvigorate the commitment of the United States to assist our Somali and African Union partners to combat the scourge of terrorism to promote stability and prosperity for the Somali people and their regional neighbors,” the U.S. Mission to Somalia said in a press release.

If this means more fire power, it will mean only more misery for the Somali people and their regional neighbors. Over a decade of intense firepower and at times brilliant military tactics on the part of AMISOM have not made Somalia or its neighbors safer. In fact, lawlessness has only increased.

AMISOM troops, particularly Ugandan ones, have committed numerous human rights violations, including the sexual abuse of Somali girls and women, and are notoriously corrupt. Often underpaid because their corrupt government is itself skimming their salaries or not paying them at all, some Ugandan troops have even been caught selling American weapons to al-Shabaab—and it’s possible that this is how al-Shabaab obtained Saturday’s bombs. Thus, Washington may be arming both sides of the conflict, ensuring the war’s continuation. AMISOM troops also appear to be engaged in a sugar smuggling racket through Somali ports, which also benefits al-Shabaab.

Increasing AMISOM’s firepower will also further strengthen the leaders of Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia, the alliance’s main contributing nations. These leaders, reliant on American foreign and military aid, are meanwhile wreaking havoc in their own countries. In Ethiopia, the government of Hailemariam Desalegn has shot and killed hundreds of peaceful demonstrators, and detained thousands of democracy activists, journalists, lawyers, and others. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni sent troops into parliament last month to violently arrest lawmakers trying to block his latest ploy to extend his 31-year grip on power. Some lawmakers were hospitalized and one now walks on crutches. Meanwhile, peaceful demonstrations across the country have been met with police bullets, batons, and teargas. In Kenya, where two peaceful demonstrators agitating for free and fair elections were shot dead last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta seems determined to cling to power, even though the Supreme Court recently annulled his August reelection because of rigging. Meanwhile, in South Sudan, both Museveni and Kenyatta are helping to prop up the murderous regime of Salva Kiir which has been accused of genocidal acts against minorities.

As long as the United States continues to rely on regional thugs like Museveni, Kenyatta, and Desalegn for help in Somalia, it will also continue to regard their human rights abuses and meddling in other countries with nonchalance.

At some point, Washington has to realize that there is no military solution to this conflict. This means negotiating with al-Shabaab, grim as that prospect may seem. Al-Shabaab is monstrous, but it also has many adherents within Somalia, where it is at times seen as less corrupt than the fragile government of President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, a U.S. citizen, who, though popular, was elected in February in a shambolic poll that was postponed four times. Al-Shabaab is notorious for enforcing a harsh version of Sharia law, including stonings and amputations, but their courts are mainly concerned with property disputes and other mundane cases, which they often resolve in ways that litigants tend to respect. Shabaab-controlled roads are also generally safe, and unlike the government’s, al-Shabaab’s tax rates are stable and don’t fluctuate according to the whims of whoever is collecting them (the group even gives receipts). Most importantly, al-Shabaab understands the traditional clan governance system that, unlike the central bureaucracy created by the international community, is respected by most Somalis and is consistent with their ways of life.

Unfortunately, it’s almost inconceivable that the Trump administration’s heavy-handed foreign-policy establishment will recognize that its exclusively militaristic approach has failed, and that diplomacy is called for. This will set the stage for more trouble to come.