The Challenge of Al-Shabaab in Somalia: Our Moral Obligations?

August 19, 2013

In an op-ed for the Washington Post entitled “Our Moral Obligations in Somalia” published today, Michael Shank takes the U.S. government to task for its failed policy approach to the East African state.  In it, he argues that the U.S. fails to understand the challenge posed by Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, and consequently squanders opportunities to contribute to the country’s stabilization.  Much of what he writes is generally accurate.  He is right, for instance, to argue that U.S. policy in Somalia would benefit from a more multi-faceted approach.  And he is clearly knowledgeable about the country.  But this apparent knowledge is what makes the manner in which he discusses the issue rather disappointing.  Much of the op-ed’s content either detracts from or undermines his central argument.  A few items of note:

First, Shank characterizes the bulk of al-Shabaab recruits as unemployed, impoverished youth.  This is absolutely correct.  But his implication that this contradicts an assessment of the threat the group poses to regional security and stability is naïve.  Lack of opportunity might well be among the most important drivers of al-Shabaab recruitment, but this doesn’t alter the core identity or mission of a group.  Much of its leadership is committed to a global jihadist ideology, and all of its leadership is committed to introducing Islamist governance into a society for which it is culturally a poor fit.  This argument is the functional equivalent to discounting any expansionist threat posed by the Soviet Union because most Red Army soldiers were not true believers in worldwide socialist revolution.

Second, Shank argues that the U.S. has an immediate opportunity to promote stability in Somalia.  “But it requires a serious rethink on how we wage war,” he writes.  “In Somalia, a war on poverty and unemployment would go a lot farther in meeting our objectives than our current strategy.”  Yes, policies geared toward combating poverty and unemployment hold very real, significant potential, but they are not mutually exclusive with a kinetic counterterrorism strategy.  Implying otherwise suggests an unbalanced appreciation of the efficacy of the various tools of power and influence at a government’s disposal.

Finally, Shank maintains that an immediate goal of U.S. policy should be to “ensure that Somalia’s president and prime minister’s spots, ministerial posts, and members of parliament are better balanced, more inclusive, and more representative, as they have, for decades, been dominated by a few clans only.”  The notion that the international community can impose a political system consistent with its views of democracy and fair representation fails to acknowledge that it was precisely this approach that has underpinned failed attempts to stabilize Somalia for two decades.  An endless succession of internationally sponsored peace conferences and reconciliation agreements reached in Djibouti, Nairobi, Addis Ababa, and elsewhere have yielded incremental progress at best, and produced the much-maligned 4.5 formula of clan power division.  Yet Shank seems to believe that a similar effort by the U.S. and other world powers is now the most appropriate prescription for Somalia’s lingering challenges.

To be sure, U.S. policy toward Somalia has not achieved the objectives of promoting stability and security toward which it is geared.  But this op-ed’s conclusions are based on an inaccurate appreciation of both local dynamics and two decades of international policy toward the country.  As such, it does little to inform a more effective strategic approach to combating al-Shabaab and stabilizing Somalia.

John Amble is the Managing Editor of War on the Rocks.  Follow him on twitter at @johnamble.

Photo Credit: European Commission DG ECHO