The recent, horrific bombings in Uganda, carried out by the Somali jihadist group Al-Shabaab, on its own admission, should draw attention to the regional threat to East Africa emanating from Somalia. The group declared in February 2010 that the "jihad of the Horn of Africa must be combined with the international jihad led by the al-Qaeda network."
If Al-Shabaab gains sufficient control of Somalia, it seems clear thar it will use the country as a base from which to launch operations against its neighboring countries: the group has in the past threatened to wage jihad in Kenya, Uganda and Burundi.
This raises a simple question: What can we do about Somalia?
Let us review what we know is not working. namely, the present strategy. Currently, the UN, the African Union and the West all back the weak, central Somali government, as Al-Shabaab controls much of southern (and some of central) Somalia. Meanwhile, Uganda, Burundi and other African nations have deployed a multinational peacekeeping force; on occasion, the US carries out drone attacks as well.
Nonetheless, Al-Shabaab is continuing to gain ground. The presence of foreign troops is deeply resented by many Somalis, as was the case when Ethiopian troops invaded to oust the ruling Islamic Courts Union in late 2006, fearing that Somalia would become a base for international Islamist militants. Although Ethiopia withdrew in 2009, the presence of African Union troops only appears to have allowed Al-Shabaab to win more recruits.
However, a recent editorial in the UK newspaper The Independent rightly noted that "outside intervention has only made matters worse" in Somalia, but then went on to suggest that the outside world instead "needs to start from the specifics in Somalia and build peace and reconciliation from the ground up."
This alternative proposal is vague at best, and not valid when considered in practical terms. With whom would one work? How could one avoid alienating certain tribal factions? Above all, how can one work towards reconciliation in the face of an active, ideologically driven insurgency? The proposed solution would at least seem to require engaging in an indefinitely long occupation and an arduous task of nation building. The latter would be especially problematic in Somalia, which ranks bottom out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) produced by Transparency International.
The central problem, therefore, seems to be that while overt help and intervention only undermine the stability of the country even further, Somalia cannot simply be "abandoned to its fate" or the whole of East Africa will be destabilized as well.
A productive new approach could be containment. This doctrine implies a number of policy recommendations. Foremost would be the gradual withdrawal of foreign troops from Somalia, along with ending drone attacks. At present, the African Union could well find itself in a "quagmire" similar to that which US forces faced when they intervened in Somalia in 1992. U.S. President Bill Clinton's approach, seemingly identical to what The Independent is suggesting, ended up in disaster as the population, not seeing any benefits of "war as social work" manifesting themselves quickly, began to resent the presence of American troops, culminating in the humiliating withdrawal of 1994.
We should therefore limit ourselves to two things: backing native Somali forces opposed to Al-Shabaab, and trying to cut off external sources of support to the group. We should also issue a stern warning to Al-Shabaab that any aggression against other countries would be met with severe retribution, which might deter the group from pursuing operations beyond Somalia.
First, we should recognize the fact that Somalia has never truly been united since the fall of Dictator Siad Barré in 1991. We should therefore back the only stable form of government in the country that has any true popular support: the de facto independent government of the currently unrecognized nation Somaliland, a bastion of freedom and democracy relative to much of the Muslim world (rather than trying to reintegrate it under the rule of a central government in Mogadishu). Somaliland encompasses the northwestern part of Somalia and has a 60,000 strong military force already engaged in conflict with Al-Shabaab. Full diplomatic recognition of Somaliland, together with strong and increased support for its government and military, could serve as a buffer force against Al-Shabaab, potentially diverting its attention away from waging international jihad.
Second, cutting off external support to the group would require cracking down further on piracy in the region, and monitoring Somali communities in the West. As the East African Seafarers' Assistance Program pointed out, funds from piracy have been used to support Al-Shabaab activities onshore. In addition, up to 40 Somali Americans have returned to Somalia to fight alongside Al-Shabaab; reports have emerged that mosques in Minneapolis, home to the largest Somali émigré community in the U.S., have been recruiting grounds for Al-Shabaab.
Such changes in policy, even if not able to eradicate Al-Shabaab, would at least help to limit any threats posed to the region.