Washington is worried about Somalia. After 18 years of civil war, a insurgent group loosely aligned with Al Qaeda has threatened to conquer the country. In a March audio recording, Osama Bin Laden encouraged the hardline group Al Shabab to overthrow Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, the leader of the U.S.- and U.N.-backed “transitional government.” This summer, Al Shabab surrounded the government’s Mogadishu headquarters, forcing African Union peacekeepers (pictured) to deploy tanks to help repel the attackers. And in July, the Obama Administration sent the defenders millions of dollars worth of small arms and ammunition, with more promised.
But the current strategy of propping up the weak transitional government will never work, according to one retired Somali freedom fighter.
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In the 1980s, Ahmed Egal helped found the Somali National Movement, which successfully fought back the forces of Somali dictator Siad Barre, in the country’s north. The freedom fighters then stepped aside, to allow clan leaders to organize a new government. Today, “Somaliland,” with 3.5 million people, is a rare bright spot on the Horn of Africa’s bloody landscape. It has its own laws, currency and army, and has remained peaceful, and growing, as the rest of Somalia has fallen apart. Still, no other country officially recognizes Somaliland, instead preferring to back the TFG.
“It is necessary to embrace the only peaceful, functioning, Muslim, representative government in the Horn of Africa, namely Somaliland,” Egal told me, for my latest piece in World Politics Review. Rather than sinking more cash into a doomed effort to save the transitional government, he said, the U.S. should ally with Somaliland and use it as a base for fighting Al Shabab. Egal envisions a new African Union peacekeeping force operating out of Somalia, alongside Somaliland forces trained and equipped by the U.S., Russia and the E.U.
It’s a controversial proposal, to be sure. Washington is steadfast in its support for the transitional government, and politely declines to recognize any new state that would shatter Somalia’s existing borders. But there is precedent for the U.S. backing a breakaway region of a troubled country. Washington is the major sponsor for South Sudan, a fully autonomous region of Sudan that is quietly arming itself with modern weaponry, in anticipation of a 2011 vote that could see South Sudan formally secede.