Cut-Rate Counterterrorism

As the attack on Nairobi’s Westgate mall and the failed Oct. 4 raid by Navy SEALs in Somalia have reminded the world, the fight against terrorism in East Africa is far from over. It’s a fight that has been ongoing for two decades, but since 2001, the United States has outsourced much of the effort to a series of local proxies — forces from Ethiopia, the African Union (AU), and, most recently, Kenya. This has allowed Washington to execute its war against the terrorist group al-Shabaab without getting sucked into a quagmire: There have not been American soldiers on the ground, except for the occasional special-operations mission like the one on Oct. 4. Johnnie Carson, former assistant secretary of state for Africa, has referred to Somalia as one of his greatest successes, and the AU has taken to describing its engagement in the country as an “African solution to an African problem.”

But this verdict is both simplistic and inaccurate. The conflict in Somalia is not solely an “African” problem; nor is the proposed “solution.” Moreover, America’s proxy strategy is, on the whole, a bad one. Too heavily influenced by the national security interests of Somalia’s neighbors and too focused on backing a centralized government that lacks popular support, the strategy has created opportunities for al-Shabaab recruitment and has stifled meaningful, inclusive dialogue about Somalia’s political future. Indeed, it has arguably created more problems than it has successfully addressed — and it could do the same in other countries, if the United States widens the strategy’s scope.

Washington’s enthusiasm for the proxy approach stems largely from its affordability and the desire to avoid deploying large numbers of American personnel in Somalia. Direct support to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has cost Washington approximately $340 million since 2007. In addition, the United States has paid about 30 percent of the roughly $1.1 billion spent by the UN Support Office for AMISOM since 2009. These figures do not include the substantial bilateral assistance packages to AMISOM troop-contributing countries, which annually total tens of millions of dollars.

This all sounds expensive, but it is a pittance in the “war on terror” — the equivalent of less than a week’s expenditure in Afghanistan (where costs have averaged $300 million per day). And, as a quick review of its history reveals, the proxy strategy has also had terrible costs.

In the aftermath of the 1998 attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 9/11 attacks on the homeland, Washington worried that Somalia could become a haven for al Qaeda. The United States helped sponsor a series of regional conferences between 2001 and 2004 that eventually produced a set of Transitional Federal Institutions for Somalia. Kenya played host to the negotiations, which dragged on for years in large part because the Somali warlords being recruited into the new government squabbled. But the real driving force behind the process was Ethiopia, which wanted to ensure that a friendly regime was transplanted into Mogadishu.

Unfortunately, this process was not particularly inclusive of Somalia’s broader population, and the governing institutions remained based in Kenya until 2005, when the newly formed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) moved to the Somali town of Jowhar and then Baidoa. When the TFG returned home, it was so unpopular with Somalis that it needed the protection of Ethiopian troops. Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s involvement only hardened local impressions that the TFG was a foreign tool.

The TFG’s formation sparked an immediate backlash in Somalia. A rival Islamist regime emerged under the authority of the Islamic Courts Union. With considerable support from local communities, it quickly gained power across southern Somalia. By June 2006, it had assumed control of Mogadishu, which it took by force from a coalition of US-backed warlords. In September 2006, Islamic Courts fighters captured the strategic port city of Kismayo and also began to militarily threaten the TFG, which they argued was little more than an Ethiopian puppet regime.

Fearing the emergence of a Somali nationalist movement with designs on its eastern Ogaden region, Ethiopia suggested that the Islamic Courts Union was secretly being led by al Qaeda. Washington also adopted this analysis — though it has subsequently been discredited. It was on this basis that, in December 2006, Ethiopian forces crushed the Islamic Courts fighters and transplanted the TFG into Mogadishu. However, because the Islamic Courts Union had been widely hailed across southern Somalia for bringing unprecedented stability to Mogadishu, many Somalis saw Ethiopia’s troops as foreign invaders installing their preferred regime.

This presented the most radical elements of the Islamic Courts Union with an excellent recruitment tool, and al-Shabaab, a previously unpopular group of radicals, was catapulted to the head of a broad-based insurgency. As rumors of Ethiopian and TFG atrocities spread abroad, Somalis as far afield as Minnesota left their homes to join the fight.

Faced with escalating costs and attacks on its troops, Ethiopia quickly looked for an exit strategy. This came in the form of AMISOM, though both Washington and Addis Ababa correctly doubted the AU’s ability to launch and sustain a large military operation. AMISOM was supposed to deploy 8,000 soldiers and police in order to allow an Ethiopian withdrawal and protect the TFG. Instead, it deployed approximately 1,600 Ugandan soldiers to Mogadishu in March 2007 and spent the next five and a half years doing little more than protecting the approximately 1 square mile of Mogadishu that Somalia’s transitional government actually controlled. Slow deployment meant that Ethiopian troops were not able to withdraw until January 2009, fueling perceptions that that the AU was propping up an Ethiopian puppet regime. 

Indeed, AMISOM soon proved an almost purely military instrument that supported only one side of a complex political situation. Without AMISOM, it is highly unlikely that the TFG would have survived, and Somalia would not now have its new Federal Government, established in September 2012. But this support also encouraged the TFG to rule out meaningful political dialogue with the Islamist opposition and ensured that the struggle against the insurgents would be a fight to the death.

After nearly four years of military stalemate, AMISOM started to turn the tide against al-Shabaab when, in October 2011, Kenya unilaterally invaded southern Somalia without prior notification to the UN Security Council, the AU, or Washington, and despite the objections of Somalia’s then-president. Despite fears that Kenya’s military campaign would play into al-Shabaab’s hands, the following month Ethiopia also deployed troops to central Somalia. Together with AMISOM, Somalia’s two neighbors launched a multipronged assault on al-Shabaab forces and expelled them from several of their previous urban strongholds. In early 2012, the AU and UN agreed to integrate the Kenyan forces into AMISOM. By mid-2012, the allowances for Kenyan troops were being paid for by the European Union, Washington stepped up its training and assistance programs, and the United Nations was providing them with logistical support.

After seizing Kismayo from al-Shabaab forces in October 2012, Kenya quickly decided to support a proxy administration in Somalia’s border region with Kenya — “Jubaland state” — headed by a former ally of al-Shabaab, Ahmed Madobe. Kenya’s leaders want friendly authorities in Jubaland so that the region can act as a buffer zone to stem the flood of refugees and attacks coming across the border from Somalia. Unfortunately, Kenyan forces have also used the proxy administration to restart Kismayo’s banned charcoal trade and to divert revenues from its port, in direct contravention of UN Security Council resolutions, AMISOM’s mandate to support Somalia’s Federal Government, and the directives of the AMISOM force commander.

Like the Ethiopian intervention before it, Kenya’s support of Madobe and Jubaland has served as inspiration for al-Shabaab to recruit more fighters to its cause and take action against Somalia’s neighbor. The attack on the Westgate mall, most notably, was intended as retribution for Kenya’s actions in Somalia — and its perpetrators appear to have been drawn from the Somali diaspora.

It is thus abundantly clear that US counterterrorism strategy in the Horn of Africa has been too heavily influenced by the interests of Ethiopia and Kenya, with outcomes ranging from bad to terrible. As the UN Security Council correctly recognized when it initially supported AMISOM in February 2007, the solution to Somalia’s conflicts lies not in killing particular individuals or backing one faction over others, but in pursuing an inclusive process of dialogue. Yet both Ethiopia and Kenya have supported their preferred Somali faction(s) at the expense of constructive international engagement. In so doing, they have fanned the flames of extremism both within Somalia and abroad.

Moreover, Washington has pinned its hopes on a military-heavy approach intended to enforce the rule of a centralized government in Mogadishu: the two iterations of the TFG and now the Federal Government, none of which was elected by popular vote. Backing these governments has proved counterproductive in several respects, not least because of their corruption, lack of crucial capabilities to govern, and deficit of popularity across the country (as opposed to being popular with particular clans). Among other dubious individuals, the United States has reportedly supported a warlord turned government general, known as “Inda’ade” or “the Butcher,” who ran gun- and drug-trafficking operations and admitted to protecting some members of al Qaeda. US support for centralized, unpopular governments has also raised the stakes for Somali combatants, who have tended to believe an immense state-building budget is up for grabs and have fought harder than ever to capture the imagined spoils of government.

To make matters worse, Washington’s approach means that it has tasked AMISOM with a counterinsurgency effort in the absence of a reliable local governing partner, a strategic error only magnified by AMISOM’s shortage of funds and equipment. AMISOM has long struggled with inadequate financial and logistic resources, troops, and military enablers like tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. Unsurprisingly, as of June 2013, AMISOM has adopted a posture of consolidation and has refused to undertake any more major offensives against al-Shabaab’s strongholds.

Moving forward, the danger of attacks similar to the one on the Westgate mall will persist until Somalis are able to engage in a meaningful process of reconciliation. But that cannot happen while regional states continue to exploit Somalia’s multiple conflicts and the “war on terror” to pursue their own interests — and while the United States allows this all to happen.

This danger also threatens to spread, should the United States continue to embrace a proxy strategy. Al Qaeda is focused on creating footholds in Africa and will almost certainly look to embed itself in the continent’s complex wars. Currently, the neighbors of war-torn states in which al Qaeda might work to establish a strong presence — from Mali to the Democratic Republic of the Congo — are perceived by local populations as partisan combatants, not neutral observers. If the United States tries to utilize such states as proxies on new fronts in its battle against al Qaeda, there is a serious risk that, like Kenya and Ethiopia, they will use counterterrorism as camouflage for other goals, such as eliminating political opponents or accumulating natural resources. The United States, in turn, might create more enemies among local populations than it eliminates.

Similarly, the Somali case suggests that the meddling of regional states has galvanized some US passport-holding members of the diaspora to plot attacks in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. It also raises the specter of homegrown radicalization — some 50 Somali-Americans are thought to have joined al-Shabaab — and “lone wolf” attacks in the United States. These concerns will only grow if Washington continues down the strategic path it has charted in Somalia in other African states.

In short, repeating the proxy approach might produce more tactical successes for al Qaeda in Africa and even bring some of the continent’s wars home to the United States. Washington would be wise to recognize the costs that the proxy strategy has enacted so far, as well as the damage it could do in the future, and refocus its engagement. Rather than conflating state-building with counterterrorism, Washington should pursue al Qaeda by targeting only those individuals who pose a direct threat to the homeland by means of drones and kinetic strikes by special operations forces — hopefully with more success than the recent action in Somalia. Separately, in countries struggling to establish stability, Washington can promote political reconciliation and conflict resolutions by providing humanitarian relief and paying for or hosting peace-building conferences.

If the United States avoids the temptation to drag regional proxies into other countries’ wars, al Qaeda will have a much harder time convincing Africa’s rebels that their causes belong in the global jihad. In turn, the fight against terrorism in Africa will become easier to win.

Bronwyn Bruton is the deputy director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council.

Paul D. Williams is associate professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

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Image: (Photo: US Army Africa/Flickr/CC License)