Two New Presidents, One New Future: US-Somali Counterterrorism Cooperation in 2017

From the Korean War and its long-lasting repercussions, to the devastating 9/11 attacks and their staging ground in Afghanistan, many of America’s greatest national security challenges lurk on the periphery of the global order. This holds true in 2017, where sub-state actors thrive, and small, oft-overlooked states quiver on the precipice between central government and anarchy. Nowhere is this outlook more prescient than in Somalia – after grappling with decades of war, dictatorship, and power vacuums, the country is on the brink of a new national future. Progress in a multinational campaign against al-Qaeda (AQ) and Islamic State (ISIL) linked terrorist groups (such as al-Shabaab), who have been prominent domestic actors since 2006, the imperfect yet functional parliamentary elections of 2016, and the election of the surprisingly popular Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo just weeks ago lead some analysts to see a positive path for development. Conversely, the stalling African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), endemic corruption in government, domestic infighting, heightened food insecurity, and the uncertainty of American President Donald Trump’s policy priorities paint a more negative fate for Somalia. The new administration must acknowledge both of these possibilities and understand that the latter would be a devastating blow to American national security: the periphery must not be relegated to small Washington office cubicles, but should instead be rigorously studied by the National Security Council, and frequently placed on President Trump’s desk in the Oval Office.

With recent gaffes including Trump’s botched, unconstitutional immigration ban (that included Somalia) and the subsequent, downright vexing gift of a “Make Somalia Great Again” hat to Mr. Farmajo, Mr. Trump has some damage control to do. He can smooth over these misgivings by taking quick, decisive steps towards shoring up Somalia’s new government upon the fresh wave of optimism.

Above all else, Mr. Farmajo and his parliament need breathing room. In order to accomplish this, Mr. Trump will have to not only utilize his resident subject matter experts from across the federal government, but also his self-proclaimed gift for negotiating deals. First, he must broaden and jumpstart the initially successful AMISOM coalition that has since stalled. In particular, he should receive assurances from Ethiopia that it intends to fully return its military forces to the operation after their messy, pseudo-withdrawal last year. The United States must reiterate to Ethiopia the mission’s importance to its own internal security, as spillover in both refugees and militants is a likely outcome of failure in Somalia. Additionally, aiding a victory in Somalia would be a boon to the currently ailing government, giving it increased confidence and political capital. Second, US policymakers, in cooperation with Somali leadership, should make an appeal to Egypt and other Arab League states to contribute military and humanitarian support to the fight. Egypt has one of the strongest militaries in Africa and a shared interest in fighting extremism, seen in General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s attempts to ward off ISIL in the Sinai Peninsula. Somalia’s geographic proximity and strategic importance as a training and recruiting ground for al-Qaeda and other groups make it a formidable threat to major Arab states. Third, with endless talk about the United States’ oversized, unfair role in international security operations, Trump should look beyond the African Union and Arab League in also calling on the frequently disparaged NATO for support. This move would benefit Trump domestically, as he would appear to be following through on a campaign promise to shift America away from a unilateral world policeman, and it would add well-trained forces to the operation as a whole. America’s NATO allies are not disinterested pawns in this equation, but instead have a vested desire to remedy the regional instability for similar reasons to those of Ethiopia and Egypt. While seemingly unconventional, a minor NATO mission along the Horn of Africa would not be unprecedented, and is in fact rather familiar territory for the organization. NATO contributions to anti-piracy strategy in Operation Ocean Shield assisted in nearly exterminating the threat of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. This is not a proposal for an Iraq-style occupation of Somalia, but instead for a nuanced, disparate-yet-expanded alliance of advisors and experts to help strengthen the Somali state, in coordination with a humanitarian push from other interested states.

Avoiding a military-centric strategy is imperative here. Without a coherent, multifaceted humanitarian development strategy placed at the forefront of the Somalia plan, lasting peace will be a long shot. The all-too-common mistake in these situations is leaders simply paying lip service to “schools and hospitals” without any serious policy prescriptions. This plan aims to be reparative in that regard. The budget request for fiscal year 2017 calls for the appropriation of 196.27 million dollars (a decrease of over 100 million). This is a normal amount in comparison to other Sub-Saharan aid packages, and the number should be increased by at least fifty percent in order to accommodate for such an intense development push. The money can be balanced out among the United States’ vast foreign aid budget, and will be an important show of seriousness on President Trump’s part. A large portion of that aid should go to building a strong, functional, regulative government that can withstand some inevitable decentralization (a la Ethiopia). Farmajo’s government can do this by specifically focusing on the creation of a respectable education system with a curriculum centered around unity and understanding between the country’s major clans. This will go a long way towards forging cooperation, reducing infighting, and securing an anti-extremist coalition. Finally, President Farmajo should use his “yes we can” attitude, strong reputation, and political capital to carry out an intensive anti-corruption/graft campaign.

These steps are modest: requiring only a slight increase in international awareness, US funding, and multinational manpower. However, they will go a long way towards giving the Farmajo administration an uncommon chance to succeed both now, and five to ten years down the road. As one Somali proverb says, “Save me from the small one, the big one I shall manage myself.” The United States should help with the present, a smaller task, and leave a stronger Somali state to manage the big one: its own sovereign future.


Author: Graham Benedict