Robert Oakley served as U.S. ambassador to Zaire (1979-82), Somalia (1982-84), and Pakistan (1988-92) and as Special Envoy to Somali (1992-1994) and directed State’s Office of Combatting Terrorism (1984-86).  I had the opportunity to get his thoughts on some key issues of interest to the Atlantic Council community.


1.  What lessons can we draw from the American experience in Somalia in the 1990s in dealing with the recent piracy problem?

It’s worth remembering that the [George H.W.] Bush administration considered force the last resort in Somalia, ultimately sending in a humanitarian mission when the situation deteriorated.  President Clinton changed that, trying to turn Somalia into a democracy.  This angered the local population, turning them against us, and ultimately led to the Blackhawk Down tragedy. This in turn caused problems for Clinton for years to come, notably in Rwanda, Haiti, and elsewhere.

We have a superbly trained and capable military. Taking out pirates isn’t a problem.  But the question becomes “Then what?”  Who do we arrest?  How do we deal with the backlash?

2.  Most observers argue that the piracy is part of a deeper problem: Somalia as a failed state.  Do you agree?  What, if anything, can the United States and its allies do to promote stable governance there?

It’s a very interesting question.  We spent a number of years going down the wrong track.  We were paying warlords to keep order but this made the Islamic courts much stronger.   The Ethiopians solved that problem for a while but they’re gone now and the Islamists are back in control.

Somalis are going to fight each other if left on their own but will quickly unite against foreigners who come in.  The Al-Shabaab splinter group, which has strong al Qaeda links, is largely a product of our mistakes. And they’re helping to fund the pirates we’re now trying to fight.

There’s a really good editorial in Tuesday’s Washington Post, outlining what needs to be done.  We’ve got to gradually cultivate the current president and build up a sustainable government, relying on allies like the Saudis and the relevant NGOs as much as possible.  The goal should be economic development and security but we must do that with very little American presence on the ground.  Somalis aren’t hard to rent.

We’ve just got to peel off the layers until we get to the hard core extremists.  Only then do we consider military options within Somalia.

All of this is going to require a lot of patience, something Americans haven’t exactly been known for in recent years.  It’s going to be very expensive but worth it in the long run.  We can’t be impatient.  We have to accept making progress slowly, always with the promise of doing more later.

We have to enlist allies with long term interests in the region.  Back when I was ambassador there in 1983, President Barre was doing a huge amount of business with Saudi Arabia, for example.  They love to buy Saudi sheep and camels. So, we need to help them get legitimate commerce going to make piracy and other criminal activity less attractive.

3.  Moving to Africa generally, the United States has made a concerted effort in recent years to step up our engagement, including the creation of AFRICOM and a much larger financial commitment to public health.  Why is that continent so important to our interests?  What more should we do there?

We got off on the wrong foot with AFRICOM, which Africans perceived as a takeover under the guise of development.  That’s largely been sorted out now, though.

Africa is just so important to the United States in so many ways.  The mineral resources — oil from Angola, Nigeria, and Algeria — plus cobalt, copper, and so forth are critical to our economy.  Terrorism is also a major issue, especially in Algeria and Nigeria.  We’ve set up a naval task force to deal with the issue along the West African coast.

And humanitarian issues are obviously of major moral concern to the United States.  Yes, many Americans worry about corruption and aid money not going to the people we’re trying to help.  But we’ve learned a lot over the years.  The Millennium Challenge Fund, for example, rewards leaders for good behavior and has strong accountability measures. Money for AIDS and other programs are now being very well targeted.

4. The Obama administration has made an effort to improve our relations with the Muslim world.  At the same time, however, he seems to be receiving substantial pushback from Pakistan in his efforts to pressure them to address security issues there.  What advice would you offer in balancing these objectives?

I recently met with a Pakistani expert and asked her whether things were as bad as it looked from here and she replied that “It’s even worse.” We’ve forgotten Rumsfeld’s question: “Are we creating more terrorists than we’re killing?” And we probably are. The drones may be killing a lot of Taliban and al Qaeda but they’re alienating the tribesmen we need to win the war.

We’ve pushed the Pakistani army to fight our war and created a huge backlash. They’re not trained or equipped for counterterrorism and they’re getting killed and killing the wrong people, essentially fighting their own.

Worse, what we’re calling “benchmarks” remind them very much of the “sanctions” they had hanging over their heads for so many years. [Editor’s note:  Pakistan’s ambassador, Husain Huqqani, made this point in his Atlantic Council appearance last week.] By demanding that they divert troops from the Indian border to fight the Taliban, we’ve alienated them tremendously. Whether we agree or not, the Pakistanis consider India to be the biggest threat to their security.

Right now, the Pakistani military has control over their nukes. But, if the Islamists gain ground, who knows what’s going to happen?

Beyond that, the Pakistani president is both incompetent and corrupt. He’s got no clue on the economic side of things.

5. Finally, the war in Afghanistan has been underway for more than seven years with no end in sight.  What prognosis do you have for the NATO mission there?

The problem is that we can’t do one without the other. If we can’t contain the problem in Pakistan, we don’t have any chance in Afghanistan.

It’s going to take a long time. The progress on the civil side has been encouraging. We’re finally making a real effort there. Still, the Karzai government is not providing sufficient protection. We’ve had great success training the army but the police is in shambles. Right now, the people dislike the police more than the Taliban.

Ultimately, we’ve got to ease Karzai out. The problem is that we’ve made it known that we want to get rid of him, which has created its own backlash. We’ve got to be more subtle.

We’re not very good at subtle.

No, we’re not.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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