Commentary Magazine


The U.S. and Somalia: Who, Us?

NATO and the EU are trying to make their own luck in the antipiracy operations off of Somalia. In late February, almost unnoticed by the global media, the EU’s members agreed to take the fight to the pirates’ lairs ashore with a new charter to control Somali ports and to join NATO in intercepting “mother ships” before they have a chance to begin launching attacks. The EU plan for exerting control over Somali ports won’t be seen until later this month. But Danish destroyer HDMS Absalon, flagship of the current NATO task force, struck the first blow in the “early intercept” effort on February 28 when it sank a pirate mother ship shortly after its departure from a pirate haven ashore.

The NATO press release doesn’t specify which port the scuttled mother ship came from, but that factor — which pirate ports the antipiracy coalition tries to control — will almost certainly bring coalition forces into contact, and even confrontation, with the warring factions ashore. The mother ship’s port was probably north of Mogadishu; perhaps Harardhere, a well-known pirate hideout. Surveillance of that port or of the pirate ports in the northeastern region of Puntland would keep coalition forces out of the way of the fighting in the south, at least for now. But Somalia’s Islamist al-Shabaab insurgency seized the southern port of Kismayo in October 2009, partly because its leaders understand that if any faction is to consolidate central-government power in Somalia, doing so will entail gaining control of the ports.

A pitched confrontation is thus one concern; another is that the coalition will position itself, intentionally or otherwise, as a potential partner in pacifying and unifying Somalia — by choosing which faction to secure the ports for. We would presume today that the recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) would be favored in such a case. But the potential for open-ended mission creep is obvious and disquieting.

Moving the antipiracy fight ashore was always going to present these potential pitfalls. It would be very encouraging to see signs of a comprehensive plan in Washington for dealing with consequences and “next steps,” particularly with Iran supplying insurgents in both Somalia and nearby Yemen. Unfortunately, what emerged instead last week was another instance of the Obama administration’s peculiar haplessness.

In response to reports from the New York Times and other sources, and to seeming confirmation by Somalia’s president, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the State Department gave a special briefing on Friday to counter rumors that the U.S. is aiding the TFG in a prospective military campaign to retake the areas of Mogadishu controlled  by al-Shabaab. This could have been done without appearing to overemphasize — to a bizarre degree — how minor is the U.S. role in Somalia. But the State Department’s spokesmen earnestly disavowed, more than once, any intention to “Americanize the conflict”; swore to account for and audit all military assistance provided — indirectly, through the African Union peacekeeping force — to the TFG; and pointed out how very small, at $12 million, is the U.S. support to the TFG itself anyway.

It was a notably defensive performance. Fox’s Catherine Herridge tried to raise the issue of U.S. security interests in the region, given the ties between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda in Yemen, but her question provoked only a reiteration of the intention not to “Americanize the conflict.”

The conflict, however, is already “Americanized,” in the sense of being a major factor in keeping U.S. military forces tied to the region. The chaos in Somalia is already the reason why piracy off its coast has become such a problem for global shipping. U.S. forces will be participating in the new, more preemptive operating profile of the coalition navies. And Somalia’s internal strife is a key vulnerability of our growing footprint in Yemen.

None of this implies that America must be secretly advising the TFG on military operations; but the disclaimers proffered by the State Department come off as reactionary and even perhaps a bit disingenuous. The Friday briefing was certainly a missed opportunity. Setting the record straight should involve more than a statement of what multinational processes we support: it should include a statement about the primacy of our own national interest in a unified Somalia that is not a haven for either pirates or terrorists.

The briefing did, however, send a signal about our posture. The Obama administration is so worried that people might think we’re actively involved in the problem and trying to apply leadership to it that its spokesmen seek to downplay our role. This cannot turn out well for a superpower — even a fading one. With our naval forces embarked on a preemptive antipiracy approach that will move the whole coalition a step closer to engagement ashore, that’s something we should have a very bad feeling about.

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