Somalia and Afghanistan

Comparing Somalia and Afghanistan is commonplace. The BBC does it. The EU does it. Hell, I’ve done it.

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.

Islamabad, Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan

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.

Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya

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.

3 thoughts on “Somalia and Afghanistan

  1. Very good point. Rarely occur to people’s mind that Somalia can be Kenya’s Afghanistan. It is probably will if the situation continues without a solution. Going back to the sahel, will Mali one day become the Afghanistan of another neighboring country? Nothing serious is done there, in my opinion, to curtail the AQMI movement or find a sustainable solution to the Tuareg uprising. Perhaps some countries we suspect will not allow so for some reason (s). The government made a mistake in making peace with AQMI to avoid them helping the Tuareg (source: Algerian press).

    The worse scenario is that if AQMI stay untouched in Northern Mali (it has been for some time and Globe and Mail of Canada sheds some light on that recently) et gets strong with some assistance from traficking and let say some other country (ies), which one will be the next Pakistan? Algeria? Mauritania? Niger? Part of Mali? Senegal? Far away Nigeria? You never know.

    Thanks Alex for this.

    • I can definitely understand your concern about Mali; reading these articles about the Fowler controversy definitely made it seem AQIM is stronger in Mali than I had previously thought. What I don’t understand is whether they are a cohesive movement with a real political base, or a small core of militants with associated networks of criminals and allies.

      I take it from your remarks you dont think the recent Qaddhafi-brokered peace with the Tuaregs will last?

  2. Pingback: Kenya and the Somali Recruitment Controversy « Sahel Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s