Commentary Magazine


Will Somalia Backslide Again?

That may seem like a silly question to those whose memory of Somalia stopped with Black Hawk Down and piracy, but over the past year there has been some real progress in the east African country which has become synonymous with state failure.

Somalia has made surprising progress. Mogadishu Airport is open to real airlines, piracy is on the decline thanks to a robust international military presence and, in January 2013, the U.S. re-established formal relations with the Somali government for the first time in decades.

Responsibility for progress on the ground in Somalia rests not with international diplomats, but with AMISOM, an African Union military mission manned by Kenyans, Ugandans, Djibouti, and Burundi. Sometimes, military force matters far more than the best intentions of diplomats and UN debates.

For years, southern Somalia was a no go-area. Several years ago, I had arranged a trip to Mogadishu (a trip that, because of some subsequent events on the ground, never came off). Planning the trip, however, was eye-opening. I spoke with former intelligence officials, Somali businessmen, and assorted Somalia-watchers. I was urged by them to fly into a former Italian airfield north of Somalia accessible by various privately-owned Somali airlines which operate out of Dubai. Whatever I did, they said, don’t try to enter Somalia from Kenya because southern Somalia was the most dangerous region and had become, essentially, a stronghold for Islamist terrorists.

Southern Somalia is home to Kismayo, a port city which acts as the commercial capital of the country. By controlling the port, the terrorist group Ash-Shabaab was able to survive financially. After all, not every militant is a true believer: Many are in it for the patronage. For years, the assumption was that because of Kismayo’s economic importance, Ash-Shabaab and other terrorists would fight to the death in order to maintain their stranglehold over the city. Diplomats dawdled for years about whether AMISOM forces should enter, and what the diplomatic ramifications would be. But last September, AMISOM went in and Ash-Shabaab fled. Local officials—not necessarily subordinate to Mogadishu authorities–resumed their control of the city. One wonders what death might have been prevented had diplomats not been so reticent and blessed the move months earlier.

Now, all the gains not only in Kismayo but across the region appear in jeopardy. Earlier this month, the UN lifted the decades-long arms embargo on Somalia. Doing so allowed the UN to pretend to be relevant, and to confirm progress on the ground. The logic for the UN move was to strengthen the Somali army and central government control. The reality has been the opposite: Corruption is rife throughout Somalia and the lifting of the arms embargo has flooded the black market.  Now, it seems extremists are making a comeback in Kismayo as political deadlock between the Somali central government and local clans in Kismayo exacerbate the problem.

Ash-Shabaab may not be as much of an al-Qaeda affiliate as it claims, but that’s neither here nor there. It is an Islamist extremist group and readily engages in terrorism. It is responsible for thousands of deaths, some in the most brutal fashion. It is not enough to claim victory; such affiliates and terrorist groups have to be hunted into oblivion. That certainly does not mean U.S. intervention is needed. AMISOM is doing the job. The key for the White House is to make sure that nothing is allowed to get in their way. While AMISOM’s formation and activities are blessed by the UN, that should not mean that Ban Ki-moon and his legions of ill-intentioned meddlers should interfere with success. If they do, any progress will be quickly lost. It already is in Kismayo.