Former Somali special envoy to the US Abukar Arman: Getting US-Somali relations on the right track

A great deal of optimism surrounds the fact that the Somali-U.S. diplomatic relationship is now back on track. However, at this embryonic stage, it would be naïve to assume that such newly gained optimism is sufficient to effectively cultivate a sustainable strategic partnership that is beneficial to both nations.

There are real challenges ahead that must be dealt with by sound policies, and with a mutual effort carried from both ends.

On the Somali end, I would briefly underscore three main priorities: institution-building without which ending chronic corruption and culture of impunity is impossible; cultivating the right space for a genuine reconciliation; and providing tangible public services. [Readers who may be interested in more in-depth analysis on Somalia may want to visit my blog at Foreign Policy Association].

While the two nations never engaged in direct conflict, actions by certain non-state actors during the past two decades of semi-anarchy in Somalia have caused political apprehension, thus gradually causing these two friends to drift apart.

Threat of Violent Extremism

In light of the recent Westgate Mall terrorist attack which raised red flags in the U.S. and other parts of the world, counterterrorism has, once again, taken the center stage to frame the political discourse on Somalia. Could this kind of terrorism happen in the West? Are terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab radicalizing Somali youth in the diaspora? What can be done in order to mitigate such a threat?

Effectively dealing with these critical questions might require a paradigm shift. The foreign-driven counterterrorism program in Somalia must be tailored to deal with the distinctive elements causing or exacerbating violent extremism, and that effort must be led by Somalis.  

Contrary to the common misconception, not all violent extremists are the same; therefore any cookie-cutter approach to neutralize them is bound to fail. Some violent extremists, both in their ‘reason for existence’ and affiliations resemble the gangs found across the U.S. who may have shared identities such as symbols, colors, ethnic background as well as modus operandi, but seldom have a mutual objective or strategy even with their nearest county. Others operate more like a mafia network with a congruent hierarchy that adheres to the same goals regardless of proximity to one another. With the former, strategic community partnerships and policing is more effective compared to commonly employed aggressive ‘preemptive measures’ that may work in uniquely dire situations. 

Already, both across Somalia and with the Somali diaspora in the U.S., imams, parents and activists have started initiatives that counterbalance against the risk of radicalization.    

The Real Effect of the Dual-Track Policy

This is perhaps the most sensitive factor and indeed one with the greatest potential to hamper any serious progress in the cultivation of a sustainable relationship between the U.S. and Somalia. 

In her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield applauded the “dual-track approach concluded with the successful completion of the Djibouti Peace Process and the recognition of the Federal Government of Somalia. The United States has underscored the importance of outreach and engagement with the regional administrations to form the federal framework.” 

Though I hate to disagree with my old colleagues and former interlocutors at State, this policy — unveiled almost two years after Djibouti Peace Conference — was not and is not the right instrument to strengthen the state-to-state relationship. One may argue it was dead on arrival for a number of reasons, chief among them: It closely resembled Ethiopia’s much detested policy toward Somalia: Engage and support the center on security interests while engaging all other political entities and oppositions in Somalia to keep the center irrelevant. 

By unilaterally engaging all clan-based entities of all shades, proxy militias loyal to Ethiopia and Kenya, Puntland and Somaliland, U.S. policy appeared to (inadvertently) endorse perpetual division and conflict. [In the process some dozen, arguably more, clan-based fiefdoms that see themselves totally independent of the center and as such possess the legal authority to engage any international interest groups or country on “bilateral partnership bases” have emerged.] 

Together with the so-called Provisional Constitution, the Dual-Track policy has contributed to the emergence of this kind of a dangerous fault-line that could cause violent eruption. As recently reported by The Wall Street Journal and others “a number of small companies have signed oil-exploration deals with regional authorities” thus “raising tensions with the central government” based on ambiguity and indeed contention on demarcation of authority.

“Drone Diplomacy” Doesn’t Cultivate Relationships

While drones might have some tactical military utility that could give the U.S. an advantage against militant extremists, it is myopic to think that it would yield any diplomatic benefit in the long run. It is an option that might eliminate one threat only to create several others. It may track and kill one or more terrorists who may (or may not) present a direct threat to the U.S. and its “core interests” while also killing others - a scenario that creates fertile ground for al-Shabaab recruitment.

Currently, almost every aspect of Somali security is (directly or indirectly) outsourced by the international community between the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and private military contractors (PMCs). In the aforementioned hearing, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) rightly questioned the logic behind the total reliance on PMCs and lack of oversight. At a different level, his expressed concerns are congruent with both the government and intellectual/activist class.  

In the case of AMISOM, it is as articulated by Abdi Ayne, Director of HIPS — a Somali thank tank: It has done a great job, but, it cannot be a substitute for a robust Somali security apparatus with clear command and control.

With a comprehensive policy, or through a strategic partnership that is mutually beneficial, the Somali-U.S. relationship can improve beyond symbolism. However, the process cannot be managed from the periphery and outside the conventional diplomatic means.  

Meanwhile, a confidence-building step that U.S. is serious about a relationship beyond counter-terrorism would be helpful. And, decommissioning all PMCs and starting ‘military-to-military’ relationship could be the right start.

Abukar Arman is Somalia's former special envoy to the United States.