By Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, February 23, 2012
Many of the world’s most powerful people spent a day gathered in London to talk about the world’s most tragic and unsuccessful country, and failed, once again, to find any solutions.
But this very lack of grand vision might be the most telling thing to have come out of the London Conference on Somalia. Despite attracting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and top ministers from 50 countries, there was no talk of “saving” Somalia – and an aggravating lack of will to let it save itself.
After 22 years of collapse, civil war, warlord armies, piracy, international terrorism and mass starvation emerging from Somalia and a string of often disastrous military and political interventions, big schemes of nation-building, humanitarian intervention and rapid regime change have lost their appeal.
Even Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who had been an eager supporter of big-project solutions to failed states such as Libya and Afghanistan, seemed to exude a sense of anomie when discussing Somalia. “I’m just not convinced that the security situation on the ground would allow us to send Canadian personnel into Mogadishu at this time,” he said shortly after leaving a meeting with fellow ministers. “We’ve done a lot during this past year for Somalia, and it will continue to be high on our radar.”
Indeed, the only substantial outcome of the conference occurred a day before it began, when the United Nations Security Council voted to add almost 6,000 more African Union soldiers to the European-funded combat force that is fighting to oust the powerful al-Shabaab militia, which is now formally allied to al-Qaeda.
Beyond that, there was little. Even the future of the Western-backed transitional national government, whose term is due to expire in August and whose rule has been plagued with corruption and impotence, was left largely unsettled. Leaders agreed that they do not want it to remain in power, but offered no real alternative.
This frustrated many Somali political and humanitarian leaders, who would have preferred to have democratic development and nation-building at the top of the agenda. “Today politicians could have been talking about rebuilding Somalia; instead they talked about bombing it,” Rahma Ahmed of the Somali Relief Development Forum said on Thursday night.
In public, Western officials said humanitarian solutions remain at the forefront, and that nation-building is still being pursued. They pointed to the inclusion at the conference for the first time of the leaders of Somaliland, the semi-independent breakaway state in northern Somalia whose comparative peace and prosperity are seen by some as a model for the larger nation.
But privately, there seemed to be an agreement that crushing al-Shabaab must come first. Ms. Clinton’s key message, beyond pledging some further humanitarian aid, was that “we must all keep al-Shabaab on the run,” and she noted that African Union forces had driven them out of a key southern stronghold on Wednesday.
“The only goal in our sights now is to beat back al-Shabaab until we have enough land liberated from their control that we can begin to talk about political solutions,” the policy adviser to a European foreign minister said during the summit. “This may frustrate those who want democracy to start now, but we need to get it done first.”
There were no representatives of al-Shabaab at the conference, even though they control the largest swath of territory in Somalia and would likely have to be part of any future peace. Indeed, al-Shabaab responded to the conference on Thursday by posting a message on their website announcing an even closer alliance with the central leadership of al-Qaeda.
This is the central dilemma of Somalia at the moment: Its complete lack of a state infrastructure has allowed criminal international terrorist forces to move into its power vacuum. Those forces pose a threat to the wider world: Al-Qaeda has launched attacks across Africa from Somalia, and has attracted fighters from Britain, the United States and likely Canada, and piracy threatens international shipping.
As a result Western countries are focused on eliminating the terrorist threat. But many observers say that this singular focus on security is creating even greater instability. Aid agencies capable of helping a democracy-building effort are unable to send staff to Mogadishu. As a result, the instability mounts, and this makes the terrorist threat more acute.
Somalia, a failed state, fails to bring about a co-ordinated, collaborative and focus response from world leaders, leaving what is effectively an open, cancerous wound, on the world's stage, to continue pouring both its terrorism and its starvation and death and disease and its piracy into the world community.
Once again, we have to ask, "Is this a lack of funds, political will, imagination, fatique, urgency or some complicated combination of many factors including those mentioned?"
If we are to leave failed states to Al-Shabab and terrorist groups like that, the world is going to face more virulent violence, erupting from both the imagination of the terrorists and the plunder in both arms and confidence of the terrorists.
Syria's unresolved civil war, with neither an international agreement to bring about a ceasefire, nor an international effort to provide humanitarian assistance, leaves that country to Assad, and his allies Hezbollah and Iran.
The terrorists know, and have evidence to support their contention, that western nations will eventually grow weary with continual fighting without any sign of success, or even an end to the threat. And, in such a vaccuum, they will rise again and wreak their havoc. So, in a sense, they will demonstrate to their followers that they are winning, in the long term war. Just yesterday in Iraq, some fifteen co-ordinated explosions went off in different locations, including police academies and elementary schools, most by suicide bombers, and while Al Qaeda has not formally claimed responsibility, there is general agreement that the attacks were the result of groups working under the broad and diffuse umbrella of Al Qaeda.
Little wonder the question of the stability of Iraq, without yet having a full and functioning government, years after the last election, remains both unanswered and unlikely to be answered soon.
Afghanistan's Taliban has begun shooting American soldiers directly, and called for all Afghans to kill Americans in the wake of the thoughtless and senseless burning of the Quran and other holy books by U.S. personnel, and even a sincere apology from President Obama seems to have had little impact in quelling the anger and violence.
With so many pots boiling over on so many red-hot stove elements, diplomats must be left wondering if their jobs have not become impossible. Even long-time allies are struggling with the confluence of huge factors like the economy, the environment, lab-generated viruses that mutate rapidly, international security, nuclear proliferation especially in Iran, technology and job and industrial seismic shifts, and even bigger shifts in power to the "east" with the accompanying military build-up, especially in China and, it would seem that failed states, harbouring terrorists have fallen off the radar of what is possible, even with the best of intentions.
Failed states like Somalia and their people cannot and must not be left to the humanitarian agencies, lest the resources of those agencies become so depleted that they are unable to make a dent in the size and scope of the problem. However, finding the effective balance of political will and muscle and the appropriate strategy and tactics to deploy such muscle will, apparently, remain as open and unresolved questions for the next generations of political leaders.