By Andrew Bast
Somalia has become synonymous with the term “failed state.” Even now, after nearly two decades of civil war and a dismaying string of failed foreign interventions, the end of the country’s long humanitarian catastrophe seems no closer. Recently, Western security experts have begun to warn that the capital city, Mogadishu, could be overrun by Al-Shabab, an armed Islamic extremist group the U.S. government says has ties to Al Qaeda. In the past two months, more than 200,000 people have fled fighting between Al-Shabab and a 4,300-strong African Union peacekeeping force. Last week Al-Shabab gunmen overran a U.N. compound in the city of Baidoa, expelling the international agencies there, including aid workers. Alarmed, Washington recently sent $5 million worth of munitions to help the badly outmatched blue helmets. Now various groups inside and outside the country are calling for more foreign assistance.
But the last thing Somalia needs is additional outside interference. Instead, the world should pull out its forces. Again and again, foreign intervention there has only made conditions worse. Ethiopia’s three-year war with Somalia’s insurgents, which ended in January, managed only to empower the hardline Islamists. Likewise, the presence of the African Union force has made the insurgents seem stronger and more unified. (Meanwhile, the U.N.-approved transitional government the AU is meant to support remains largely impotent and controls just a few streets in Mogadishu.) To fight the foreigners, Al-Shabab has allied itself with another insurgent group, Hizbul Islam, despite the fact that the two have little in common. “The foreign military intervention is a unifying force for the extremists,” says Council on Foreign Relations fellow Bronwyn Bruton, author of an upcoming report on the political dynamics in Somalia. The country has even become a prime destination for Qaeda fighters from Pakistan, who are attracted by the chance to wage international jihad there. That makes a long-term political solution much more difficult to achieve.
Hardhearted as it seems, the smartest response might be to let Al-Shabab try to seize Mogadishu. There are several reasons to think this could help. For one, the Islamist group is far from monolithic, and could well splinter without a foreign enemy to rally against. Second, many of Somalia’s factions—like the Abgal businessmen who run Mogadishu’s port—are well armed and unlikely to be steamrolled by religious fanatics. Third, should they somehow manage to actually seize power, Al-Shabab would then face the immense challenge of governing. “Somalis don’t like harsh religious ideology,” Bruton says, and would thus likely resist Taliban-like rule. Foreign armies can still help—but only once Al-Shabab has crumbled on its own. And if outsiders return, it should be to rebuild, not to fight.