What the comparison signifies depends on where the comparer sits. That came out starkly this week in two very different pieces – one by Richard Bennet, an American researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, and one by Hassan Naado, CEO of the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance. A piece by Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute is similar to Bennet’s, but shorter.
Bennet and Naado’s perspectives differ in obvious ways. For Bennet and Kagan, Somalia is not the ultimate topic of discussion; the debate over escalation in Afghanistan is. Still, when they invoke Somalia as a rhetorical device, arguing that Somalia’s chaos proves the US must not limit its operations in Afghanistan, it’s worth noting how they pull Somalia out of its historical context. For Bennet, “the United States began its engagement in Somalia” with the UNOSOM mission in the early 1990s. (What about American military and financial support for Siad Barre during the Cold War?)
At least Bennet mentions the US-supported Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from December 2006 to January 2009. For Kagan, Bill Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia is directly responsible for the emergence of al Shabab. Without history, it’s easy to avoid the messiest aspects of the situation in Somalia. For example, it’s easier to argue that military force can reshape politics in Afghanistan when you gloss over the failure of the Ethiopian occupation to do the same in Somalia.
The idea of a Somalia without much history facilitates the comparison with Afghanistan. So does the idea of a Somalia without geography. But Bennet and Kagan forget that every Afghanistan must have its Pakistan – a metaphor Naado evokes vividly.
For Naado, the story of Afghanistan and Pakistan is different than the one Bennet and Kagan tell. Naado points to US support for Muslim fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a primary cause in entangling Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in making Afghanistan the battlefield it is today. Moreover, Naado argues that the presence, not the absence, of foreign forces makes Afghanistan “a most dangerous country” and that the long history of American military involvement in the region has destabilized Pakistan.
Armed with this perspective, Naado brings the comparison full circle: let not Kenya, he pleads, play Pakistan to Somalia’s Afghanistan. Naado worries that if reports of young Kenyan men being recruited to fight for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government are true, Kenya may face, down the road, a returning army of fighters that it cannot control.
Like Bennet, Naado blurs history; in his case, he conflates the mujahideen with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Still, despite hasty and ahistorical comparisons on both sides, these different views are worth examining, especially for one feature they share – the lack of a serious proposal for solving the conflict in Somalia.
Naado is more concerned to argue for Kenyan neutrality than for a certain outcome across the border, so perhaps his unspoken suggestion is that everyone should wait and see what happens. Bennet and Kagan, quick to say that limited counterterrorism efforts in Somalia have failed, nonetheless also seem to want to wait and see. As Bennet puts it, “We currently live with the chaos in Somalia.”
I’ve written about Afghanistan elsewhere; my anti-escalation views are no secret. The point here, however, as it relates to the Horn of Africa, is that the US will not – I suspect, cannot – determine political outcomes in Somalia through force of will or arms. If we cannot, if there is no solution, no way to “get Somalia right,” no magic policy or special personality that could suddenly solve the crisis, then that says something significant about US power, not just in Africa but also, if we continue to accept the comparison, in South Asia. Perhaps, then, it’s worth treading carefully as we try to control various Afghanistans, to make sure we don’t leave a trail of Pakistans behind us.