National Security

Cut-Rate Counterterrorism

Why America can no longer afford to outsource the war on al-Shabab.

As the attack on Nairobi's Westgate mall and the failed Oct. 4 raid by Navy SEALs in Somalia have reminded the world, the fight against terrorism in East Africa is far from over. It's a fight that has been ongoing for two decades, but since 2001, the United States has outsourced much of the effort to a series of local proxies -- forces from Ethiopia, the African Union (AU), and, most recently, Kenya. This has allowed Washington to execute its war against the terrorist group al-Shabab without getting sucked into a quagmire: There have not been American soldiers on the ground, except for the occasional special-operations mission like the one on Oct. 4. Johnnie Carson, former assistant secretary of state for Africa, has referred to Somalia as one of his greatest successes, and the AU has taken to describing its engagement in the country as an "African solution to an African problem."

But this verdict is both simplistic and inaccurate. The conflict in Somalia is not solely an "African" problem; nor is the proposed "solution." Moreover, America's proxy strategy is, on the whole, a bad one. Too heavily influenced by the national security interests of Somalia's neighbors and too focused on backing a centralized government that lacks popular support, the strategy has created opportunities for al-Shabab recruitment and has stifled meaningful, inclusive dialogue about Somalia's political future. Indeed, it has arguably created more problems than it has successfully addressed -- and it could do the same in other countries, if the United States widens the strategy's scope.

Washington's enthusiasm for the proxy approach stems largely from its affordability and the desire to avoid deploying large numbers of American personnel in Somalia. Direct support to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has cost Washington approximately $340 million since 2007. In addition, the United States has paid about 30 percent of the roughly $1.1 billion spent by the U.N. Support Office for AMISOM since 2009. These figures do not include the substantial bilateral assistance packages to AMISOM troop-contributing countries, which annually total tens of millions of dollars.

This all sounds expensive, but it is a pittance in the "war on terror" -- the equivalent of less than a week's expenditure in Afghanistan (where costs have averaged $300 million per day). And, as a quick review of its history reveals, the proxy strategy has also had terrible costs.

In the aftermath of the 1998 attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 9/11 attacks on the homeland, Washington worried that Somalia could become a haven for al Qaeda. The United States helped sponsor a series of regional conferences between 2001 and 2004 that eventually produced a set of Transitional Federal Institutions for Somalia. Kenya played host to the negotiations, which dragged on for years in large part because the Somali warlords being recruited into the new government squabbled. But the real driving force behind the process was Ethiopia, which wanted to ensure that a friendly regime was transplanted into Mogadishu.

Unfortunately, this process was not particularly inclusive of Somalia's broader population, and the governing institutions remained based in Kenya until 2005, when the newly formed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) moved to the Somali town of Jowhar and then Baidoa. When the TFG returned home, it was so unpopular with Somalis that it needed the protection of Ethiopian troops. Unfortunately, Ethiopia's involvement only hardened local impressions that the TFG was a foreign tool.

The TFG's formation sparked an immediate backlash in Somalia. A rival Islamist regime emerged under the authority of the Islamic Courts Union. With considerable support from local communities, it quickly gained power across southern Somalia. By June 2006, it had assumed control of Mogadishu, which it took by force from a coalition of U.S.-backed warlords. In September 2006, Islamic Courts fighters captured the strategic port city of Kismayo and also began to militarily threaten the TFG, which they argued was little more than an Ethiopian puppet regime.

Fearing the emergence of a Somali nationalist movement with designs on its eastern Ogaden region, Ethiopia suggested that the Islamic Courts Union was secretly being led by al Qaeda. Washington also adopted this analysis -- though it has subsequently been discredited. It was on this basis that, in December 2006, Ethiopian forces crushed the Islamic Courts fighters and transplanted the TFG into Mogadishu. However, because the Islamic Courts Union had been widely hailed across southern Somalia for bringing unprecedented stability to Mogadishu, many Somalis saw Ethiopia's troops as foreign invaders installing their preferred regime.

This presented the most radical elements of the Islamic Courts Union with an excellent recruitment tool, and al-Shabab, a previously unpopular group of radicals, was catapulted to the head of a broad-based insurgency. As rumors of Ethiopian and TFG atrocities spread abroad, Somalis as far afield as Minnesota left their homes to join the fight.

Faced with escalating costs and attacks on its troops, Ethiopia quickly looked for an exit strategy. This came in the form of AMISOM, though both Washington and Addis Ababa correctly doubted the AU's ability to launch and sustain a large military operation. AMISOM was supposed to deploy 8,000 soldiers and police in order to allow an Ethiopian withdrawal and protect the TFG. Instead, it deployed approximately 1,600 Ugandan soldiers to Mogadishu in March 2007 and spent the next five and a half years doing little more than protecting the approximately 1 square mile of Mogadishu that Somalia's transitional government actually controlled. Slow deployment meant that Ethiopian troops were not able to withdraw until January 2009, fueling perceptions that that the AU was propping up an Ethiopian puppet regime. 

Indeed, AMISOM soon proved an almost purely military instrument that supported only one side of a complex political situation. Without AMISOM, it is highly unlikely that the TFG would have survived, and Somalia would not now have its new Federal Government, established in September 2012. But this support also encouraged the TFG to rule out meaningful political dialogue with the Islamist opposition and ensured that the struggle against the insurgents would be a fight to the death.

After nearly four years of military stalemate, AMISOM started to turn the tide against al-Shabab when, in October 2011, Kenya unilaterally invaded southern Somalia without prior notification to the U.N. Security Council, the AU, or Washington, and despite the objections of Somalia's then-president. Despite fears that Kenya's military campaign would play into al-Shabab's hands, the following month Ethiopia also deployed troops to central Somalia. Together with AMISOM, Somalia's two neighbors launched a multipronged assault on al-Shabab forces and expelled them from several of their previous urban strongholds. In early 2012, the AU and U.N. agreed to integrate the Kenyan forces into AMISOM. By mid-2012, the allowances for Kenyan troops were being paid for by the European Union, Washington stepped up its training and assistance programs, and the United Nations was providing them with logistical support.

After seizing Kismayo from al-Shabab forces in October 2012, Kenya quickly decided to support a proxy administration in Somalia's border region with Kenya -- "Jubaland state" -- headed by a former ally of al-Shabab, Ahmed Madobe. Kenya's leaders want friendly authorities in Jubaland so that the region can act as a buffer zone to stem the flood of refugees and attacks coming across the border from Somalia. Unfortunately, Kenyan forces have also used the proxy administration to restart Kismayo's banned charcoal trade and to divert revenues from its port, in direct contravention of U.N. Security Council resolutions, AMISOM's mandate to support Somalia's Federal Government, and the directives of the AMISOM force commander.

Like the Ethiopian intervention before it, Kenya's support of Madobe and Jubaland has served as inspiration for al-Shabab to recruit more fighters to its cause and take action against Somalia's neighbor. The attack on the Westgate mall, most notably, was intended as retribution for Kenya's actions in Somalia -- and its perpetrators appear to have been drawn from the Somali diaspora.

It is thus abundantly clear that U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the Horn of Africa has been too heavily influenced by the interests of Ethiopia and Kenya, with outcomes ranging from bad to terrible. As the U.N. Security Council correctly recognized when it initially supported AMISOM in February 2007, the solution to Somalia's conflicts lies not in killing particular individuals or backing one faction over others, but in pursuing an inclusive process of dialogue. Yet both Ethiopia and Kenya have supported their preferred Somali faction(s) at the expense of constructive international engagement. In so doing, they have fanned the flames of extremism both within Somalia and abroad.

Moreover, Washington has pinned its hopes on a military-heavy approach intended to enforce the rule of a centralized government in Mogadishu: the two iterations of the TFG and now the Federal Government, none of which was elected by popular vote. Backing these governments has proved counterproductive in several respects, not least because of their corruption, lack of crucial capabilities to govern, and deficit of popularity across the country (as opposed to being popular with particular clans). Among other dubious individuals, the United States has reportedly supported a warlord turned government general, known as "Inda'ade" or "the Butcher," who ran gun- and drug-trafficking operations and admitted to protecting some members of al Qaeda. U.S. support for centralized, unpopular governments has also raised the stakes for Somali combatants, who have tended to believe an immense state-building budget is up for grabs and have fought harder than ever to capture the imagined spoils of government.

To make matters worse, Washington's approach means that it has tasked AMISOM with a counterinsurgency effort in the absence of a reliable local governing partner, a strategic error only magnified by AMISOM's shortage of funds and equipment. AMISOM has long struggled with inadequate financial and logistic resources, troops, and military enablers like tanks, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters. Unsurprisingly, as of June 2013, AMISOM has adopted a posture of consolidation and has refused to undertake any more major offensives against al-Shabab's strongholds.

Moving forward, the danger of attacks similar to the one on the Westgate mall will persist until Somalis are able to engage in a meaningful process of reconciliation. But that cannot happen while regional states continue to exploit Somalia's multiple conflicts and the "war on terror" to pursue their own interests -- and while the United States allows this all to happen.

This danger also threatens to spread, should the United States continue to embrace a proxy strategy. Al Qaeda is focused on creating footholds in Africa and will almost certainly look to embed itself in the continent's complex wars. Currently, the neighbors of war-torn states in which al Qaeda might work to establish a strong presence -- from Mali to the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- are perceived by local populations as partisan combatants, not neutral observers. If the United States tries to utilize such states as proxies on new fronts in its battle against al Qaeda, there is a serious risk that, like Kenya and Ethiopia, they will use counterterrorism as camouflage for other goals, such as eliminating political opponents or accumulating natural resources. The United States, in turn, might create more enemies among local populations than it eliminates.

Similarly, the Somali case suggests that the meddling of regional states has galvanized some U.S. passport-holding members of the diaspora to plot attacks in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya. It also raises the specter of homegrown radicalization -- some 50 Somali-Americans are thought to have joined al-Shabab -- and "lone wolf" attacks in the United States. These concerns will only grow if Washington continues down the strategic path it has charted in Somalia in other African states.

In short, repeating the proxy approach might produce more tactical successes for al Qaeda in Africa and even bring some of the continent's wars home to the United States. Washington would be wise to recognize the costs that the proxy strategy has enacted so far, as well as the damage it could do in the future, and refocus its engagement. Rather than conflating state-building with counterterrorism, Washington should pursue al Qaeda by targeting only those individuals who pose a direct threat to the homeland by means of drones and kinetic strikes by special operations forces -- hopefully with more success than the recent action in Somalia. Separately, in countries struggling to establish stability, Washington can promote political reconciliation and conflict resolutions by providing humanitarian relief and paying for or hosting peace-building conferences.

If the United States avoids the temptation to drag regional proxies into other countries' wars, al Qaeda will have a much harder time convincing Africa's rebels that their causes belong in the global jihad. In turn, the fight against terrorism in Africa will become easier to win.

MILpictures by Tom Weber


The Dumbest Game of Chicken, Ever

Obama’s trying to tank the markets to win the budget fight. Problem is, that might not work -- and Republicans just don’t care.

Since the Republican Party took over the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, its battles with Barack Obama's administration have taken on Wagnerian levels of grandiosity. Increasingly, the current political showdown over the federal budget and the debt ceiling looks less like a domestic policy disagreement and more like a militarized dispute between two enduring rivals in world politics. Both sides say they want a deal that raises the debt ceiling and funds the federal government -- but their behavior suggests that they're willing to risk a protracted conflict to get what they want. Indeed, at this point, both Republicans and Democrats seem to care more about politically crippling the other party than they do about, you know, promoting the general welfare of the United States. Ordinarily, relative gains concerns this extreme appear only in the fevered dreams of realist international relations scholars.

Over the past few weeks, both sides have articulated their tactics and strategies. Looking at their strategies to date, however, this international relations theorist reaches a disturbing conclusion: Obama seems far too clever for his own good, while the Republicans might just be stupid enough to claim victory.

Let's start with the president. As a general rule, sitting American presidents don't talk down the economy -- but last week, Obama made an unusual exception. In an interview with CNBC, he said, "This time I think Wall Street should be concerned," concluding that "when you have a situation in which a faction is willing to default on U.S. obligations, then we are in trouble." It is certainly true that both public sector and numerous private sector analysts have warned about the calamitous consequences of a debt default (though not everyone is convinced). Although Obama was breaking with tradition, the president's logic for trying to scare financial markets seems pretty clear. If markets start to panic, then both Wall Street and Main Street will start to pressure the GOP caucus in the House to acquiesce to what Obama wants: a clean debt-ceiling increase. In essence, the president wants the stock market to impose economic sanction on the Republican Party.

There are past examples of financial-market gyrations forcing politicians to do something they otherwise would not have. As the 2008 financial crisis started to snowball, Congress tried to pass the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), only for it to founder in the House of Representatives. Expecting passage, markets were surprised: The Dow Jones industrial average experienced its largest single-day loss in history. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq both lost approximately 9 percent of their value. A week later, the House passed a revised TARP bill. A similar dynamic played out during the episode that most closely mirrors the current deadlock -- the 2011 showdown over the debt ceiling.

It would seem that this is the sort of dynamic Obama wants to see play out. But there are two things getting in the way of the president's "panic Wall Street" strategy: theory and practice.

Despite the president's warnings, financial markets have not panicked so far. Part of the problem comes with the fact that traders don't make money by acting as Obama's messenger. In theory, Congress yields after markets tank -- when Congress acquiesces, market rebound. But in a world that assumes traders possess rational expectations, there is not much individual incentive for them to heed Obama's advice. No matter how a trader hedges the bet, Obama is in essence asking investors to bet on markets going down when, if the strategy works, they will not stay down. That's not a great bet for traders to make. As Neil Irwin, economics editor of the Washington Post's Wonkblog, has pointed out, "you don't become a hotshot hedge fund trader by making bets based on what 'ought' to happen or what seems to make sense on some academic level. You only make money if you guess the direction of markets correctly. And if this standoff ends not with a bang but a whimper … then the current prices in asset markets will look about right."

The practical problem is that it's far from clear whether members of the House GOP will feel any particular pressure to budge. Over the past decade or so, the Republican Party's voting coalition has shifted from business interests to more ideologically pure groups. Republican-friendly business interests have already been screaming bloody murder about GOP hard-line tactics -- but to little avail. Indeed, House Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) told the Associated Press that "it wouldn't make any difference" if business interests started pressuring him. In recent years, the GOP caucus has successfully insulated itself from all outside pressures but their party's ideological base -- rendering Obama's strategy impotent.

There's an even bigger problem with the Republican Party, however: It might have no endgame for the current crisis. The architect of the current strategy, Sen. Ted Cruz, did not offer a way out when angry Senate Republicans confronted him behind closed doors last week. A surprising number of Republican representatives seem convinced that Obama will surrender his biggest domestic policy initiative, the Affordable Care Act, just to reopen the government. The interest groups that foisted the current strategy on House leaders thought the shutdown strategy would be politically popular, but polls suggest the opposite. Some members of the GOP caucus, like Ted Yoho of Florida, actually profess to believe that if the debt ceiling weren't raised, "it would bring stability to the world markets." Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman believes these sorts of political miscues reveal the outright stupidity of the Republican leadership.

The thing is, in this kind of showdown, true ignorance can yield a bargaining advantage. If Republicans truly believe that their cause is just, their strategy is popular, and nothing bad will happen, then it is impossible to pressure them to come to the bargaining table. In The Strategy of Conflict, economist Thomas Schelling observed that in a game of chicken, one driver could gain an advantage from throwing the steering wheel out the window. It appears that Republicans have come up with an even more extreme version of that gambit -- insisting loudly that they are immune to car crashes.