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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

How can the U.S. help Somalia?

Hundreds of protesters thronged the streets of Galkayo, a town 450 miles north of Mogadishu, Somalia, on Thursday, protesting the plans by one Florida pastor to burn a pile of Qurans on September 11. It was a surprising outpouring of emotion for the area — Galkayo is in Puntland, a state of Somalia that has gained autonomy from the rest of the country, and though riddled with corruption like any other East African government, has been a beacon of stability and self-government for many years.

Puntland is not its own country, however: because it has never declared independence it is often lumped together with Somalia’s anarchic south. This is too bad, in many ways. Like the nearby region of Somaliland, which has tried to become a sovereign state (no other country has yet recognized it as such), Puntland is a fairly stable place with a slowly developing economy. While recent events, like the July bombings in Kampala, are highlighting the regional challenges the Somali insurgency poses, in the northern half of Somalia two areas, Puntland, and its western neighbor Somaliland, have emerged from the chaos of the 1990s to offer hopeful signs that the country might find peace some day.

Unfortunately, the West seems to obsess on the messy southern part of Somalia, a region almost settled in 2006 by a confederation of Islamist factions, but then disbanded and thrown back into chaos by a misguided U.S. policy that sees Islamic boogeymen around every corner. Last month in Time, Nir Rosen summarized what happened:

The TFG [Transitional Federal Government] failed to transcend the predatory warlord politics that had prevailed for 15 years, and in 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist alliance that eschewed the politics of clans, seized control of Mogadishu, rapidly bringing order and economic improvement to their expanding areas of control, thanks to the enthusiastic support of the Somali business community….

With apparent U.S. approval, Ethiopia used funds provided by Washington to buy weapons from North Korea, smuggling them in through Somaliland — a breakaway region of Somalia desperate for international recognition. The U.S. then backed an Ethiopian invasion to restore the TFG to power. During the ensuing fighting, up to 16,000 Somalis were killed and 1 million were displaced. The Islamist leadership was driven out of Mogadishu. The ICU’s armed wing, known as al-Shabab (the Youth), initiated an insurgency against the Ethiopian occupation and its Somali accomplices and used tactics seen in Iraq, such as improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings. The Shabab had been a radical faction of the ICU, but was far from dominant. The Ethiopian invasion not only ended the ICU experiment in governance but also legitimized the more militant outlook of the Shabab.

Ever since, Somalia proper has become less, not more stable. Ethiopia gradually reduced its presence in Somalia over the course of 2009 —  it was deeply inflammatory, considering the literally centuries of bickering over territorial boundaries. The two countries have fought wars over ownership of the Ogaden desert that separates them, and in 2007 Somali insurgents in Ogaden killed 70 workers at a Chinese-run oil field in the area, prompting a violent crackdown by Ethiopian security services. (Rumors abound that the insurgents slaughtered so many workers in retaliation for Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia). Nowadays, Uganda fields the majority of the peacekeeping forces in Somalia — prompting at least two bombings so far. Al-Shabaab has promised to attack more targets inside Uganda if they don’t withdraw. International intervention in Somalia remains as broken and ineffective as it was in 1992, when the UN tried to intervene in the earlier stages of Somalia’s civil war.

What is the U.S. response? It would make sense to see some U.S. involvement in the two autonomous and relatively peaceful regions of Somalia. But almost everything one finds is focused on the nasty regions around Mogadishu and further south. U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, speaks openly about its “limited military support” to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and to Amisom, the UN-sanctioned African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia (AFRICOM’s engagement is largely through private contractors). It’s been this way for some years: in 2007, during the initial stages of Ethiopia’s invasion following the quasi-victory of the Islamic Courts Union in Mogadishu, the U.S. used AC-130 gunships to kill several al Qaeda figures linked to the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa that were hiding in the south, near Kenya. The U.S. Agency for International Development even posts a few scattered “success stories” in Somalia stretching all the way back to 2003. But AFRICOM doesn’t speak much about what it does or does not do in Puntland or Somaliland.

This sort of engagement doesn’t make much sense. It’s only in the last 60 days that al-Shabaab has shown any interest in expanding its activities beyond Somalia proper. And that expansion seems to be purely reactionary — an immune response, of sorts, to foreign intervention in Somalia’s violent power politics. This should raise the question: what could the U.S. be doing better?

In small towns like Gedo, in the southwestern region, there are so few schools that teenagers join militias just to receive payment and have something to do. This is a critical issue: a large pool of jobless, bored young men is a reliable indicator of the potential for future violence. Investing in the development of schools and very basic economic initiatives is neither expensive nor difficult — both the U.S. and the international community have done both very effectively in more difficult and expensive security environments like Afghanistan. But there is precious little of it in Somalia.

In fact, there is almost no development activity in Somalia. There are lots of good reasons for it — security is atrocious, and reporters who travel to Mogadishu are abducted and sometimes killed. Navigating the clan politics of the country is difficult for outsiders, especially when they don’t speak the language. And so much of the country has been destroyed, it can be overwhelming to think of what needs to be built, right now, and what can be put off for later.

At the same time, however, Somalia offers an opportunity to break the standard western model of conflict intervention. The military approach has failed twice in two decades. It should be discarded for other approaches. The normal aid model of flooding a country with foreign “development experts,” crafty with blueprints and generalized approaches but rarely versed in local issues, should be avoided as well. The international community should instead take lessons from Puntland and Somaliland — Somalis are smart, industrious, and care deeply about improving their communities. Why not allow them to take charge of their own fate? With minimal help — providing basic security (which is to be contrasted from the partisan AMISOM approach), building some schools or limited infrastructure development — the rest of Somalia can begin to develop itself. The West need not wrestle with another decades-long multi-billion dollar commitment, since Somalis have already proven they can take charge of their own fate. We just need to give them a chance to.