Our moral obligations in Somalia

When pundits and politicos in Washington think of Somalia, the first thing they likely think of is al-Shabaab, the violent … Continued

When pundits and politicos in Washington think of Somalia, the first thing they likely think of is al-Shabaab, the violent rebel group that sprung from the military wing of the Islamic Courts Union that once ran the country. That’s especially true in light of last week’s news that Doctors without Borders is pulling out of Somalia after 20-plus years in the country, due to an increase in violent attacks. That’s also likely what the Department of Homeland Security was thinking when they detained me for questioning at JFK Airport after I returned from Somalia last week.

The al-Shabaab fit nicely into the characteristics of the West’s war on terrorism as well as the conservative’s narrative about Islam and violence. But there is much that is misunderstood about this movement and the country that is trying to quell it.

First, al-Shabaab, which means “youth” in Arabic, is largely made up of young persons who were previously unemployed, aimless and impoverished. They are recruited with nothing more than a $20 gift or a cell phone. Additionally, much of the mid-level leadership is filled by marginalized clans, persons who didn’t get to participate in the political process, at least not in a meaningful way like the handful of majority clans have historically.

My research, including this recent trip to the country, has shown that the majority of al-Shabaab is not composed of people who are inherently set with a sinister agenda for Somalia and the West, but rather people in search of job security and political power. The good news here is that these needs can be met through more legitimate means; it’s up to the Somali government and the international community to make sure they’re met.

While this may not be an easy task, the outline of it is clear. First order of business: 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. Second order of business: prioritize socio-economic development, something that has not been placed on the West’s agenda for the Horn.

As I walked the streets of Mogadishu, thousands of youth milled about, aimless, listless and jobless. But in speaking with the women and youth organizations and coalitions operating throughout the country, the United States has not invested in strategies to get these kids off the streets and into jobs. This is a missed opportunity, one that does not require much funding, and one that should be remedied immediately.

That the U.S. Department of Justice’s Terrorist Watchlist creates obstacles to aid — e.g. support for socio-economic development and job creation for youth who are at risk of recruitment by al-Shabaab — is problematic. Somalias most recent famine, in 2010-2012, which killed over 250,000 Somalis, is believed to be partially a result of the World Food Programme retracting its food distribution out of fear it would end up in the hands of al-Shabaab.

There must be a better way. While I understand why policymakers wouldn’t want U.S. aid to end up in the hands of people who do violence, what about U.S. aid for preventing people from doing violence? These Somali youth need our help and if we fail to offer it to them, they will go to the loudest local recruiter, who, in many cases, is the Shabaab.

Second, the Somali leadership, within the government and without, is categorically against the al-Shabaab’s agenda and the violence it is waging. In their view, and mine, these are criminals doing criminal acts, and not representatives of Islam at all. And while it is deeply unfortunate that the U.S. government dealt so poorly with the Islamic Courts Union in 2006, when they first emerged as a more mainstream and less violent movement, that is the past that cannot be undone. What can be changed, however, is how we now engage the Somali government, its people, and its threats.

That path is clear; it is up to us to support it. In meetings with Somalia’s Prime Minister, Ministers of Defense, Interior and National Security, and Foreign Affairs, as well as the Speaker of the Parliament and myriad members of the parliament, they discussed how the Shabaab can be dismantled on several fronts. Whether it’s disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs and rigorous religious retraining and rehabilitation for former fighters — or, for future fighters, something more preventative like skills training and job placement to ensure that the Shabaab’s recruitment strategies (often a simple offer of a free cell phone) are ineffective the West must be ready to reconsider how we prevent violence overseas because the current approach isn’t working. We’re allowing new recruits to be swept up for something as simple as a cell phone. Certainly we can do better.

Somalia needs America to do better. There’s incredible opportunity for engagement but we’re not seizing it, and, instead, sticking to our old ways in America’s so-called “war on terror.” Ways that are military-focused, not socio-economically inclined, and engaging only segments of the population, not the disenfranchised and marginalized. If we want to win over Somalis, an about-face is needed, and it is needed now.

This is a critical moment in Somalia’s national rebuild and we can help tip the scales towards something very positive. But it requires a serious rethink on how we wage war. In Somalia, a war on poverty and unemployment would go a lot farther in meeting our objectives than our current strategy and for a lot less money. The time for that rethink is now.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Adjunct Faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.

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  • Ilikethenats

    We are having a hard enough time getting the youth off the streets in our own country much less Somalia. Think Detroit & Chicago and any number of American Cities. The War on Poverty in the sixties was only partially effective here, what makes this so called expert think we have some magic pill for Somalia. It’s one thing to wag your finger and quite another to come up with specifics.

    Anyone can come up with a question, it’s the answer that’s the tricky part.

    Cheers!

  • Openletter2004

    ” First order of business: 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.”

    As if the US Government has EVER had much success in dictating to another country what their election procedures will be and which people in that country can run for political office. Afghanistan and Iraq are the most recent examples of that failure and we couldn’t even do it after we had beaten the whole country into near complete submission.

    Both countries are run by greedy power hungry autocrats who dole out political favors and economic power to which ever warlord or self proclaimed religious leader can promise the most votes in the next sham election.

    That is the way a religion supported clan and tribe culture works.

    BUT, this is essentially what the Communists, socialists and Marxists do also. They Balkaniz the population by fanning the flames of race, class, ethnicity, sex, sexuality, gender identity, height, weight, … anything that they can use to foster “group envy” and then they dole out political favors and economic power to buy votes.

    BHOCARE is the penultimate example of this. The favored groups are those who deliberately make themselves unemployable by refusing to make use of the education they are offered or by drinking, drugging, using tobacco, engaging in promiscuous unprotected sex resulting in chronic disease and unwanted children that end up in foster care. You see, these people represent a potential permanent super majority of the voters. Those of us who excepted and made the best we could of the public education system and live healthy so we can work are singled out as somehow “privileged” and therefor deserving of punishment.

  • Fowzi Moallim

    Another thing.,remember Aid to other countries serves our best interest. Its contractors in places like Detroit, Chicago and number of American cities that are contracted to do the Jobs entailed in this Aids. Also interests accrued, and many other incentives that our economy gets. The U.S is too smart to give and not get trust me.