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A Revision of the International Crisis Group’s Strategy Position

By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein
Wednesday, May 05, 2010

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Acknowledging a severe crisis in Somalia’s political organization, Rashid Abdi and Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, analysts for the International Crisis Group (I.C.G.), have published a strategic analysis on May 3 as a column in The East African (“It’s not too late to rescue Somali Islamists from the jihadis who have hijacked them”). 

The following analysis will be a revision of Abdi’s and Hogendoorn’s that builds on its sound foundation by trying to improve its accuracy. 

I.C.G. Position 

Reflecting the position of the I.C.G. as a globalist think tank representing the interests of transnational capitalism and the coalition of great powers that mediate it politically, Abdi and Hogendoorn frame their analysis as a warning that immediate action is necessary to prevent a possible takeover of southern and central Somalia by the transnationalist revolutionary Islamist movement, Harakat al-Shabaab Mujahideen (H.S.M.). Their thesis is that Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (T.F.G.) could be made capable of defeating H.S.M. 

To say that the I.C.G. represents an interest and has chosen sides in Somalia’s conflicts – some alternative to H.S.M. – is not meant as a criticism of Abdi and Hongendoorn. It is possible for a polemic to be informed by an objective reading of the power configuration and an impartial judgment on the relative effectiveness of strategies in the light of the power configuration. 


Abdi and Hogendoorn begin by admitting that it is “easy to be pessimistic about Somalia,” yet move to the position that the T.F.G. “can still effect change if it can learn from its mistakes.” 


Those mistakes are major. Firstly, the T.F.G. has “no reconciliation strategy” and has not compiled a list of interlocutors and mediators; therefore, forces within the T.F.G. opposed to reconciliation with groups outside and opposed to the T.F.G. have gained a foothold. Secondly, the T.F.G. has not taken advantage of splits within the components of the armed Islamist opposition and has, indeed, turned down peace feelers. Thirdly, the T.F.G.’s incorporation deal with the Sufi Ahlu Sunnah Wal-Jama’a (A.S.W.J.) movement is in jeopardy because of efforts by powerful officials in the T.F.G. to sabotage it. 


Abdi’s and Hogendoorn’s description of the political weakness of the T.F.G. is accurate and provides the basis for revising their analysis. It is when they turn to advocating strategy and tactics that their analysis shows flaws. 


Arguing that the T.F.G. needs to be “more transitional and more federal,” Abdi and Hogendoorn state that the divided A.S.W.J. “remains the most effective bulwark against the advance of Al-Shabaab,” and warn that unless the T.F.G. consummates its deal with A.S.W.J., it risks losing the backing of the international donors on which it depends for its existence. That, however, will not be sufficient to save the T.F.G. Abdi and Hogendoorn believe that the T.F.G. must also cultivate factions in H.S.M. that oppose the latter’s transnational program. Arguing that H.S.M. is deeply fragmented and that foreign revolutionaries and their allies in the top echelons of H.S.M. have “hijacked” the movement, thereby disaffecting its lower ranks, Abdi and Hogendoorn prescribe that the T.F.G. “should reach out to these disenchanted jihadis.” 

How is this scenario to be actualized? The formation of a “grand coalition” out of the T.F.G. would be “the supreme act of collective sacrifice demanded of Somali patriots of all stripes and ideological persuasions.” 

Revised Position 

The I.C.G.’s position represents the possible limit point of Western strategy, led by Washington, towards Somalia since the 2006 Islamic Courts revolution. Most generally, that strategy has been to isolate and eventually eliminate Islamist opposition to the T.F.G. The first moment of this strategy was to refuse to negotiate with the Courts. Then, when the Courts threatened to eliminate the T.F.G., Washington condoned and assisted Ethiopia’s invasion and occupation of southern and central Somalia, which led to an Islamist insurgency that succeeded in causing an Ethiopian withdrawal, making a change in Western strategy necessary. The result was the Djibouti agreement, in which the size of the T.F.G. was doubled to accommodate the conciliatory wing of the Courts; the aim was no longer to prevent Somalia from having an Islamic political formula, but to isolate anti-Western Islamists. The expanded T.F.G. has, however, proven unable to gain traction, and the Islamist opposition has gained control over most of southern and central Somalia, isolating the T.F.G. in an enclave of Somalia’s capital Mogadishu where it is protected by the armor of an African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM). Now, with the T.F.G.’s situation more precarious than ever, Abdi and Hogendoorn want the West of fall back yet another step, to the last line of defense, by pressuring the T.F.G. to somehow engineer a “grand coalition” to isolate only the transnational revolutionary Islamists in H.S.M. 

The flaw in Abdi’s and Hogendoorn’s analysis is that the actors on which the success of their strategy depends are too divided within themselves and between each other to effect a “grand coalition” against the transnational Islamist forces. 

Abdi and Hogendoorn are correct that the T.F.G., A.S.W.J., and H.S.M. are all factionalized, and have conflicting interests. At present, the T.F.G. has been rendered politically ineffective by a dispute over office holding at the highest levels, which directly bears on its ability to incorporate A.S.W.J. (unlike the Djibouti agreement, the deal to incorporate A.S.W.J. means that some current officeholders in the T.F.G. will have to sacrifice their positions – and they are reluctant to do so).  Whether or not this dispute is resolved (Abdi and Hogendoorn do not even mention it), the conflicting interests that have generated it will remain. A.S.W.J. has split over the incorporation agreement, with even the faction backing it withdrawing from negotiations with the T.F.G. after the latter failed to proceed with the agreement’s implementation. Meanwhile the fragmentation of H.S.M. has not led to open breaks, leaving H.S.M. able to continue military pressure on the T.F.G. and A.S.W.J., and maintain control of the territory it holds. No faction in the T.F.G. wants to share power with A.S.W.J., which has its own agenda for dominance in Somalia; the incorporation deal is another imposition of the donor powers and their regional “partners,” Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and the African Union. A.S.W.J. is in direct conflict with H.S.M. on a religious plane, with both sides committed to eliminating the other. With its strong position on the ground, H.S.M. has no interest in dealing with the T.F.G., and the donor powers are at the least ambivalent about having the T.F.G. put out feelers to disaffected members of H.S.M. The T.F.G., already faced with difficulties in incorporating A.S.W.J., cannot think of incorporating elements of H.S.M. In addition, Abdi and Hogendoorn fail to mention the warlords and clan militias ranged under the A.S.W.J. banner, and the anti-Western nationalist-Islamist group Hizbul Islam (H.I.), which is itself split and sometimes works in tandem with H.S.M. and in other cases is in conflict with it. Add Ethiopia, which would oppose a “grand coalition,” given its strategy of divide and rule in Somalia, and one gets a still incomplete indication of the obstacle in the way of Abdi’s and Hogendoorn’s strategy – a proliferation of conflicting interests. Even if all the actors but H.S.M’s transnationalist faction have an interest in preventing a transnationalist Islamist takeover of Somalia, they also have other interests that, at present, prevent them from forming a united front. 

That Abdi and Hogendoorn are aware of the dense conjuncture of conflicting interests is indicated by their admission that “a supreme act of collective sacrifice” is required of the actors if they are to form a “grand coalition” against transnational revolutionary Islamism through a “more transitional and more federal” T.F.G. In that conclusion they are correct, but what is the probability that such a “supreme act” will be performed? 

The formula that Abdi and Hogendoorn present is entirely based on a shared interest of Somali actors in opposing transnationalism in H.S.M, which, of course, is their own hardcore globalist/transnationalist interest. They have no positive interest to offer to motivate sacrifice, because a positive interest would have to unite Somali actors against both forms of transnationalism in the name of self-determination. The probability of an interest in self-determination gaining traction is also very low, but it is a genuine possibility, whereas asking Somali leaders to make a supreme sacrifice for Abdi’s and Hogendoorn’s interpretation of Western interests is beyond the pale of reason. The threat that the “donors” will pull the plug on the T.F.G. is real, but it is unlikely to be sufficient to overcome the conflicts of interest in Somalia. A national movement would allow Somalis to bring something to the table.

Report Drafted By: Dr. Michael A. Weinstein, Professor of Political Science, Purdue University Chicago   [email protected]