NATIONAL DEFENSE AND FOREIGN POLICY
Try a fresh approach in the Horn of Africa... and (carefully) assert power for good.
A recent surge of high-profile piracy has drawn attention to the Gulf of Aden - one of the world’s most important seaways - now under siege and frequent assault by brazen pirates, based in Somalia.
That lawless land has been a calamity in many other ways, for example by offering a haven for terrorist organizations to train and operate. Unpoliced Somali territorial waters have become a handy dumping ground for unscrupulous companies to get rid of toxic waste,letting it flow into the world's currents. Criminal gangs launder cash and stolen goods. Meanwhile, millions of innocents suffer under horrific warlords, in a land where schools, hospitals and basic services have almost vanished from memory.
The world community has tried a variety of timid “solutions” that range from increasing naval patrols to encouraging an incursion by neighboring Ethiopia -- all to no avail. The entire region, from the Kenyan border, past the national capital, Mogadishu, all the way to the Horn of Africa, remains a hellish maelstrom of fanatics, marauders and tribal vendettas. Sure, we got our fingers burned in the early 1990s, trying to bring order to Somalia with peacekeeping troops. So? Must we therefore stand aside, wringing our hands while an important region festers in catastrophic lawlessness?
One potential alternative has been avoided, till now, for reasons never made publicly clear. Go online and look up Somaliland, as opposed to Somalia. It turns out that this northern third of the country -- the portion formerly colonized by Britain -- is already at peace and relatively well-ordered.
It also sits directly adjacent to the Gulf of Aden. And yet, this region has striven to be a solution, not a part of the problem. “Our coast is extremely long, but we have kept our waters free of pirates,” said Abdillahi Duale, foreign minister of Somaliland, in a statement last week, offering the use of his territory’s ports for foreign naval patrols. This overture, like many others, appears likely to be ignored. Why?
Ever since attempting to declare its independence in 1991, Somaliland has failed to gain recognition from a single nation, because of an archaic diplomatic consensus that original national boundaries should be held sacrosanct -- an axiom that has had hellish effects in Africa and that was shrugged aside, in places as wide-ranging as Tibet, Bangladesh, Kashmir, Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo and Georgia. Still, because of this standing principle, for almost two decades, four million people in northern Somalia have been told that they could not legally detach themselves from the madness in the south.
But all right. If that’s the iron rule of diplomacy, then why not turn the matter around? Here’s an alternative idea.
Recognize Somaliland as the one calm region of Somalia. Establish and upgrade western consulates in its capital, Hargeisa. Assist improvements in democracy and human rights. Beef up aid to this promising zone and make clear to southern factions which way the wind is blowing. Reward any tribes who choose to turn away from madness and join a growing confederation that already has a record of providing at least basic law and safety, under a purely Somalian umbrella.
Moreover, with modest international aid, a Somalian constabulary based right there at the Gulf of Aden might carry out far more effective efforts against piracy - both at sea and on land, taking the fight to the pirate enclaves. (This, historically, was always the best solution to piracy.)
One Somali territory that immediately borders Somaliland, Puntland, is a major pirate haven. It ought to be possible to sway Puntland, with a combination of carrots and sticks, to join in confederation with Somaliland, or else face quarantine, while watching Somaliland grow overwhelmingly strong, next door. In any event, the cost of such an experiment would be low, and no western or foreign troops need put a foot on the ground.
There may be little time to try something like this. The rising power in the south is an extreme Islamist movement, Shabab, which models itself after the Taliban. As they have captured southern cities, some Shabab leaders have imposed ultra-harsh Sharia rules, killed humanitarian workers and terrorized women. In Kismayo, a 13-year old rape victim was accused of adultery and stoned to death. If this movement gains full sway in the south, as they did in 2006, before the Ethiopians invaded (and the Ethiopians appear about to withdraw), then the world may see a Taliban-style fait accompli and have no choice but to accept Somaliland's first preference of complete secession.
Is the alternative of assisting the pro-western and liberal-minded north a panacea? Of course not. But it does at least offer a way to attack the piracy problem at low cost and to show the rest of Somalia the rewards of joining the civilized world. Why not offer this purely Somali option -- to join a growing portion of the nation that is sane, moderate and increasingly democratic -- to any Somalian who wants to live like a civilized person?
Or, at least, could we finally hear an explanation from the U.S. State Department, as to why not?
(Part of a 12/08 series of “unusual suggestions for America and the Obama Administration.”)
Continue to the next posting in this series...