Back to Somalia?

Buried in a story in Thursday’s Washington Post about the mess in Somalia is the following nugget:

In recent weeks, the State Department dispatched a team of contractors to Somaliland to explore the idea of establishing a military presence at an old airstrip there, according to members of the team interviewed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Somaliland’s government, eager for recognition, welcomed the possibility.

“If the U.S. wishes to have a military presence in Somaliland territory, we will welcome them and accept them,” said Somaliland President Dahir Rayale Kahin. “There are discussions, and we agreed to work together toward mutual ends. But things have not materialized so far.”

This demands more reporting. What kind of military presence? Most likely we’re talking about a staging ground for special operations forces or UAV flights. But that would presumably be secret, begging the question of what contractors are doing talking about it.

The State Department just designated al-Shabaab, a wing of the Islamic Courts Group, as a terrorist organization. The Courts Group is the loose-knit Islamist alliance that briefly gained power in much of Somalia before being routed by the Ethiopians and reforming as an insurgency.

Beyond claiming that “al-Shabaab is a violent and brutal extremist group with a number of individuals affiliated with al Qaeda,” State’s designation does not explain itself. Reuters cites officials who claim that al-Shabaab’s leader trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that it shelters al Qaeda operatives involved in the 1998 and 2002 bomb attacks in Kenya. The UN is less certain about an al Qaeda presence in Somalia.

That is thin gruel. Prior links and several al Qaeda guys in the mix, while worrying, do not mean that organization is going to attack Americans, and is therefore one we should target.

Mixing a “war on terrorism” with the promiscuous designation of Islamic insurgent organizations as terrorists is a recipe for spending the next century tied up in other people’s civil wars. There’s a self-fulfilling aspect to this policy. Declaring war on insurgents may cause them to attack Americans or ally with those who do. There’s evidence that this dynamic is already occurring in Somalia. And if you agree with Robert Pape that military occupations cause suicide terrorism, American boots on the ground could create terrorists, rather than denying them sanctuary.

If we can locate terrorists bent on attacking Americans in Somalia, we should target them if the local government cannot. Aside from that, we should keep our powder dry and wait and see what emerges. Sending even a small force (and it’s possible we already have covert operatives on the ground to target airstrikes) into Somalia – even Somaliland, a relatively calm area in the south – is a terrible idea under present circumstances.

Wouldn’t it be terrific if we had a system of divided war powers so that Congress could monitor what the Pentagon is doing in Somalia, inform the public, and prevent a slide into a small war?