A Recipe for Somalia

A light footprint won’t work in Afghanistan. Just look at the Horn of Africa for all the reasons why not.

As the Afghanistan strategy review dominates conversations in Washington, President Barack Obama's advisors appear split over whether to fully resource a counterinsurgency or scale back the effort to a more limited, counterterrorism approach. Vice President Joe Biden and others, fearing an open-ended engagement, have argued that a light footprint that features Predator drones and special operations forces would be the best way to counter al Qaeda and other Islamist groups. The reported strategy would take boots off the ground, lessening U.S. casualties even as airstrikes continue to target high-value targets, such as those responsible for the September 11 attacks. To some it may sound like the perfect casualty- and commitment-free plan.

Unfortunately, we have seen such an approach before. Over the last 18 years, Somalia has become the poster child for the shortcomings of light engagement peppered with misguided attempts at counterterrorism intervention. If the United States pursues a similar strategy in Afghanistan, the result will be equally catastrophic. And this time, the new Somalia will be right in the heart of the world's most volatile region.

As in Afghanistan, the United States began its engagement in Somalia two decades ago with the deployment of troops. The Bill Clinton administration pulled out after just 19 months, when casualties mounted and there was no end in sight to the conflict. Today, 15 years of light footprint later, Somalia remains a breeding ground for a host of Islamists groups, many with connections to al Qaeda. The country is technically ruled by a weak Transitional Federal Government -- the 14th attempt at establishing authority in almost as many years. But the administration controls but a few neighborhoods of Mogadishu, holding the Islamist groups at bay only with the help of African Union troops who act as de facto bodyguards.

As Islamist insurgents have gained ground, the United States has tried to contain the damage with targeted strikes utilizing special operations forces. In January 2007, for instance, attacks by an AC-130 gunship and attack helicopters killed at least 31 people, many of them suspected Islamist militants. More recently, on Sept. 14, Navy SEALs swooped down in helicopters and shot up a vehicle carrying Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al Qaeda leader thought to be responsible for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

Despite these few successful raids, Islamist groups -- and other malign elements such as the pirates who terrorize ships off the Horn of Africa -- appear stronger than ever in Somalia. It has proven difficult to decapitate the Islamists with airstrikes alone, thanks to poor intelligence in such a chaotic climate. And far from crippling terrorist groups, U.S. strikes often cause enough collateral damage to drive more aggrieved people into the insurgent camp. These attacks have also had the unintended effect of bringing disparate insurgent elements closer together. The patchwork of Islamist groups have put aside their clan-based divisions and coalesced around a common cause, forming far more monolithic -- and more dangerous -- groups such as al-Shabab and Hizbul Islam.

Nor has halfhearted financial, military, and diplomatic support for the Somali government, whether it's from the African Union, Ethiopia, the United States, or the United Nations, done anything to curtail the Islamists. Instead, it has had the opposite effect. International backing has allowed Islamist groups to portray subsequent interim regimes as puppets of the West, further discrediting the weak bodies among the Somali people. A U.S.-backed Ethiopian intervention to install a transitional government in 2007 made matters even worse; Ethiopians were widely resented, giving the Islamist opposition a convenient enemy against which to fight. Ethiopia pulled out its forces in January, leaving Somalia as much of a mess as ever.

No wonder U.S. officials fear that Somalia is becoming a major al Qaeda safe haven -- with an ominous connection to the continental United States, home to many Somali refugees. Some of these U.S. citizens have gone back to fight for Islamist groups. And in the future, there is always the danger that other immigrants, radicalized by the U.S. attacks, will wage war directly on their adopted homeland.

Even if the United States and its allies wanted to devote major resources to stabilizing the situation, it would be hard to do so now, after years of chronic neglect. Somalia lacks security forces that could secure neighborhoods and prevent them from becoming havens for terrorists or pirates. More fatally, Somalis have lost whatever faith they might once have had not only in the United States but also in international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the African Union. Years of empty promises and failed programs have sullied the reputations of aid workers and peacekeepers, limiting the prospects for any future engagement.

If the United States were to start drawing down forces in Afghanistan -- a move that would undoubtedly spark withdrawals by many NATO allies -- it is not hard to imagine Afghanistan spiraling downward to become a "Somalia on steroids." In the 1990s, both were gripped by internecine fighting among brutal warlords. In Afghanistan, the chaos allowed for the emergence of the Taliban, an Islamist group similar to Somalia's al-Shabab. And as recent civilian casualties have made painfully clear, U.S. counterterrorism strikes there have been no more effective than in Somalia. Drone strikes should certainly play a role in hunting high-value targets, but they are effective only when backed by actionable local intelligence gathered from secure Afghans. Relying solely on air power will only serve to alienate the populace in the long run.

Although the time to win the hearts and minds of the Somalis may have come and gone, it's still not too late for the Afghan people. One of the bright spots in the war is the Taliban's abysmal approval rating. An ABC-BBC poll released in February revealed that only 4 percent of Afghans would prefer rule by the Taliban. And though the corruption surrounding the recent presidential election has undermined Hamid Karzai's government, the damage can still be undone, particularly if the Afghan government works in conjunction with coalition forces to improve the delivery of basic services and security. Such a commitment will require considerably more troops than are currently on the ground. This is the strategy envisioned by the U.S. commanding officer in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Obama is right to pause and consider all the ramifications of sending more Americans into harm's way. But if the administration's ongoing strategy review is honest and rigorous, it should conclude that there is really no alternative -- that reverting to a counterterrorism model risks turning Afghanistan into another Somalia. Absent a significant foreign troop presence and an accompanying counterinsurgency approach, the Afghan government would likely fall to warlordism or to the Taliban. The United States and its allies would then have no choice but to intervene selectively. And as in Somalia, a light footprint that targets terrorists without protecting the people would only serve to discredit the international community in the eyes of the Afghans.

Some might be prepared to live with that eventuality, as we currently live with the chaos in Somalia. But though the violence from Somalia certainly has spilled across borders in the form of terrorism and piracy, the danger emanating from a failed Afghanistan would be far greater. The terrorist groups that are based in South Asia -- notably al Qaeda -- have a more international focus and greater operational capacity than does al-Shabab. And, of course, Afghanistan is located next to another unstable state that has nuclear weapons. Should Pakistan, too, become another Somalia, the world would have a true nightmare scenario on its hands. A drawdown by the West in Afghanistan would only make that bad dream more likely.



Get Nasty or Go Home

The go-light strategy in Afghanistan is a joke. If Obama's serious about victory, it's time to start making unpleasant choices.

One has to admire the ingenuity of the policymakers, journalists, and generals who are desperately seeking to avoid hard decisions on what to do about America's lost war in Afghanistan. Last spring, the Barack Obama administration, Republican leaders, and senior U.S. generals signed on to the fairy-tale prescription spun by David Kilcullen in his book The Accidental Guerrilla. Kilcullen argued that only limited numbers of Afghans were dedicated insurgents and that the great bulk of the United States' enemies in Afghanistan were either hired by the Taliban or intimidated by Takfiri Islamists. Based on this comprehensive surmise -- for which there is scant evidence -- this April's strategy was to "protect" Afghans from bad guys and give jobs to those waging war for wages. Having attained these goals, the strategy held, cleaning up the unpopular Takfiris would be -- like Iraq -- a cakewalk.

Guess what? No cakewalk. Now, Americans are watching a shellshocked Obama administration trying to decide what to do about Gen. Stanley McChrystal's urgent request for 40,000-45,000 additional U.S. troops. The general's request, of course, is an emergency SOS indicating that the U.S.-NATO coalition is close to losing the Afghan war; a four-star U.S. general does not ask for a near doubling of his force to smooth out minor problems.

Thus, not only did the April strategy utterly fail, but the Taliban-led insurgency's trend line is steadily climbing upward, an ascent that began in 2007 and would not be possible without widespread and increasing popular support. Rather than popular support for the Taliban being based on intimidation and money, what we are seeing in Afghanistan is popular opinion catching up with Islamist determination. Until roughly late 2006, the war against the U.S.-NATO coalition was largely fought by the Taliban, other Islamists groups like that led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and al Qaeda. Since then, however, the Islamists have been joined by Afghans who simply do not want Muslim Afghanistan occupied by all sorts of infidels from all sorts of Christian and polytheist countries. In short, an Islamist insurgency has evolved into an Islamist-nationalist freedom struggle not unlike that which beat the Red Army. The best way to see the growth of the Afghan enemy facing the United States and NATO is to track the proliferating number of insurgent attacks in the heretofore quiet and supposedly "friendly" arc of provinces from Herat in the west clockwise to Badakhshan in the far northeast.

Team Obama faces quite a dilemma. McChrystal's plan to stave off defeat by asking for substantial immediate reinforcements -- a request that is still far short of what is needed to "win" in Afghanistan -- is a sure sign that long-term intense fighting and high casualties lie ahead. The United States' latest Nobel Prize winner now has a choice: He must act quickly on the advice of McChrystal and the U.S. intelligence community to save a marooned U.S. Army, or dither behind the harebrained split-al-Qaeda-from-the-Taliban strategizing and let more overmatched U.S. soldiers and Marines die amid the ego-building praise of effete Americans, pacifist NGOs, and the Nobelistas.

For now, dithering seems to be on tap. Last week unnamed administration officials and some commentators began floating a new "strategy" based on the formulation that: (a) the Taliban and al Qaeda are separable; (b) the Taliban does not pose a direct threat to the United States; and, therefore, (c) U.S. forces should fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Well, simply put, this strategy makes Kilcullen look like Clausewitz and surely could not have been vetted by the U.S. intelligence community. On point "a," it is no news at all that the Taliban and al Qaeda are separate entities; they always have been and will be. What is important is that they are working in tandem toward the same clear and simple primary goal -- to drive out the United States and NATO, destroy Karzai's corrupt and incompetent regime, and re-establish their Islamist emirate. In working toward this goal, al Qaeda's combat role in Afghanistan has decreased as mujahideen forces -- Afghans, Iraq veterans, and other foreign volunteers -- have grown and become better armed, trained, and funded. This should have been apparent to U.S. officials several years ago when Osama bin Laden named Mustafa Abu al-Yazid as al Qaeda's Afghan commander. Yazid's long-practiced fortes are logistics and finance, and he is now running the main components of al Qaeda's changed but still essential Afghan effort: logistics and training, intelligence collection, and media operations. (Nota bene: This is nowhere near a full commitment of al Qaeda's resources, and its remaining assets are assisting other insurgencies -- such as in Somalia, Algeria, and Yemen -- and preparing coming attacks in the United States and Europe.)

On point "b," one has to wonder what can be meant by arguing that the Taliban does not pose a "direct threat" to the United States. Did the drafters of the new strategy bother to ask the intelligence community whom the United States is fighting in Afghanistan? The Taliban and its allies are unquestionably a direct threat to deployed U.S. military forces -- ask the commander of the U.S. post at Kamdesh, Nuristan, mauled on Oct. 4 -- and they intend to prevent everything Washington cites as a goal in Afghanistan: democracy, secularism, the rule of (Western) law, elections, constitutions, central government institutions, women's rights, coeducational schools, and the annihilation of al Qaeda. By protecting al Qaeda, incidentally, Taliban leader Mullah Omar's outfit is also facilitating a "direct threat" to the continental United States.


It is time to face the facts. The Taliban and its allies have waged an eight-year insurgency against the United States, NATO, and the Afghan government that is growing in geographical reach, battlefield success, and popularity in the Muslim world. As long as U.S. forces are in Afghanistan, this reality will remain the same. The only way to create a less threatening Taliban is for the Obama administration to admit defeat and turn over Afghanistan to Mullah Omar, knowing that he will allow bin Laden and al Qaeda to stay in place and that U.S. defeat will have an enormous galvanizing impact on the Islamist movement around the world.

Point "c" is another mystifier and one that the intelligence community was forced to unsuccessfully pursue by President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s. One must assume Obama and his advisors will not abjectly surrender in Afghanistan, at least not before the 2010 midterm elections. Based on this assumption, the idea of focusing U.S. forces on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan raises the question of who will fight the still raging Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan while the United States shoots in the dark at al Qaeda targets it cannot locate? The Brits and the Canadians? Massively reinforced NATO contingents? The Afghan National Army and police? India? Not bloody likely. Unless the United States is going to do its al Qaeda hunting Clinton-style from U.S. Navy carriers and submarines and/or Saudi, Iraqi, and Kuwaiti bases -- and thereby be even less successful than it is now -- U.S. forces are unavoidably going to do the bulk of the fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan while simultaneously hunting al Qaeda.

For the sake of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, let us hope this new strategic formulation is quickly dropped and forgotten and that Washington's focus is refixed on the hard but simple Afghan choice it faces: Because the U.S.-NATO occupation powers the Afghan insurgency and international Muslim support for it, we must either destroy it root and branch or leave. This issue merits debate, but that must wait until McChrystal gets the troops needed to delay defeat. Afterward, only the all-out use of large, conventional U.S. military forces can be expected to have a shot at winning in Afghanistan. Since 1996, the United States has definitively proven that clandestine operations, covert action, Special Forces actions, and aerial drone attacks cannot defeat al Qaeda. It has likewise proven beyond doubt that nation-building in Afghanistan is a fool's errand.

That said, military victory would require 400,000 to 500,000 additional troops, the wide use of land mines (even if Princess Diana spins in her grave), and the killing of the enemy and its civilian supporters in the numbers needed to make them admit the game is not worth the candle. This clearly is not a viable option. We do not have enough troops, and U.S. political leaders, many U.S. generals, and the anti-American academy and media do not think "military victory" is an appropriate or moral goal; their mantra is: "Better dead Americans at home and abroad than criticism from Europe, the media, and the academy."

Overall, then, we are well along the road to self-imposed defeat in Afghanistan, and about the best we can do is give McChrystal the troops he needs to slow defeat. After doing that, we can figure out how to get out of Afghanistan in an orderly manner, while preparing to absorb more al Qaeda attacks in North America.