I must have been pretty busy in recent months since I am only now reading the Council on Foreign Relations' (CfR) study on Somalia, originally released in March 2010. Constructive disengagement is the strategy Bronwyan Burton advocates as a new approach to the war-torn Horn of Africa nation. Right disengagement, as if the United States or the West for that matter had a real engagement in Somalia, a comprehensive policy we followed through but led us nowhere (If so, I must have missed that as well).
It is certainly no coincidence that the following sounds a little like the current debate on the ASG report on Afghanistan. In Somalia we can already witness what a Biden or ASG-strategy in Afghanistan would look like: no boots on the ground, but targeted killings via drone attacks (just so that we are clear on that, they did lead to more and not less anti-American sentiment). Apart from the popularity issue we can also witness another weakness of that strategy: al-Shabaab is capable of replacing its killed leaders rather quickly and the drone attacks haven't reduced its military capability, take as exhibit A the ongoing siege of Mogadishu. The Transitional Federal Government is still confined to a few neighbourhoods in Mogadishu and survives barely thanks to the presence of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM).
But the more important parallel to the ASG-debate is this: The CfR report defies logic and is often contradictory. And though the research has been sufficient, its insight remains confined to the sort of analysis being written in the 1990s. More than that, the report is often simply confusing, one example may suffice for the moment: on page 17 the study describes Somaliland as being a potential source of instability, whereas in reality it is the most stable portion not only of Somalia but the entire Horn of Africa. That Somaliland has been threatened by al-Shabaab is not the same as being a source of instability. When the report doesn't refer to Somaliland as a source of instability, it pays reference to Somaliland in an lets-cooperate-but-don't-recognise-fashion. I am just saying that the US is probably recognising Somaliland anyway in 2011 and I may remind Burton that so far the lack of appreciation for the consolidation of democracy in Somaliland is the biggest weakness in the current US-strategy toward Somalia. The report goes on to describe al-Shabaab as a coalition by fortune. Though that was certainly true a couple of years ago, the challenge would have been to describe its evolution since its success in forcing an Ethiopian withdrawal.
And there is faulty logic at work, too: On the one hand the cost of the current strategy runs high, the report argues, because so many people are fleeing the violence in the country. On the other hand Burton believes that leaving Somalia altogether--and that is after all the strategy she keeps advocating--would lead to a re-emergence of conflicts between different clans. That of course would lead to even more refugees, since there are large parts of Southern Somalia that currently are relatively quiet.
More to the point: While the report argues for leaving Somalia largely to itself, it openly admits that the success of drone strikes would be more difficult to evaluate, since the US would not have access to intelligence on the ground. Without ever addressing the problem again the study nonetheless argues for such a strategy, HUMINT problems notwithstanding. I did mention AMISOM somewhere and in fact I should return to the African Union for a moment. The report does mention that AMISOM is carrying the brunt of the current strategy but the report does not even raise the question of what repercussions a shift in strategy would have for the African Union (Needless to say that Burton does not advocate to coordinate a shift in strategy with the AU). The Peace and Security Architecture, perhaps the most important project of the African Union, would be wrecked by such a shift without accomplishing anything in Somalia itself. Finally, don't get me started on the faults of a containment strategy in principle...
I realise of course that producing a report basically suggesting to stay course isn't necessary what gets you published in the first place and the current Somalia-strategy is certainly everything but a success. But this study does more harm than good, the policy prescription is simply in-comprehensive and irresponsible and the level of analysis is superficial at best. As with the ASG-report, this study falls short of describing a real alternative to the strategy currently in place.