Is ‘constructive disengagement’ the solution in Somalia?

On Thursday, Joshua Foust published an article at PBS’s Need to Know that, though avoiding the term “constructive disengagement,” mirrors the arguments advanced by Bronwyn Bruton’s report for CFR, and those made by Fareed Zakaria in the wake of the bombings al Shabaab executed in Uganda. Though constructive disengagement is often advanced as a minor-league panacea to Somalia’s ills, I tend to have several issues with the way arguments for this solution are constructed, and Foust’s article is no exception. Using Foust’s piece as a basis for discussion, this entry will analyze some of the general problems with the advocacy of constructive disengagement.

I should say up front that I both like and respect Foust. He is smart, typically well-researched, and has little tolerance for sloppy, dishonest, or illogical argumentation. Thus, though I will argue at length that various oversimplifications in the way he frames aspects of the Somalia conflict unfairly shape his conclusion, I do not attribute this to dishonesty on his part. Rather, I think that his unfamiliarity with the Horn of Africa coupled with an over-reliance on the conclusions proffered by various secondary sources causes Foust’s thinking to reflect some of the unwarranted conventional wisdom that can be found in a certain segment of the literature.

Were the Islamic Courts an Islamic bogeyman?

One of the presumptions common to all arguments for constructive disengagement is that the threats of Islamism or jihadism in Somalia have been massively overstated by Western analysts. As Foust writes: “[T]he West seems to obsess on the messy southern part of Somalia, a region almost settled in 2006 by a confederation of Islamist factions, but then disbanded and thrown back into chaos by a misguided U.S. policy that sees Islamic boogeymen [sic] around every corner.” Thus, in Foust’s view, the West’s misperceptions extend back to the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006, when it intervened on behalf of the UN-recognized transitional federal government, and pushed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) back from areas that it had come to control. This invasion was supported financially, and in other ways, by the US, and I know of no analyst who would argue that the invasion has gone well. Thus, several sources — including Marc Lynch, Martin Fletcher, Matt Yglesias, and the Los Angeles Times editorial page — have argued that the real threat was caused by the invasion itself. As the Los Angeles Times put it: “Al Shabab probably would not exist were it not for the disastrous failure of U.S. policies in Somalia.”

But the fact that the Ethiopian invasion has been frankly disastrous does not prove that the ICU was in fact “relatively moderate” (Lynch’s words), or that al Shabaab would have been marginalized within the ICU absent the invasion. I do not want to revisit the question of what the proper response to the ICU’s rise would have been (a question beyond the scope of this already long entry), but instead challenge the view that the ICU should clearly be understood as a relatively moderate Islamist movement. (I should note that it’s not clear this is precisely Foust’s position, but it’s an argumentative thread that tends to run through advocacy of constructive disengagement, and is suggested by his “Islamic bogeymen” remark.)

Bill Roggio, in a devastating response to one of Yglesias’s contributions to this debate, has pointed out a number of reasons that the ICU was seen as a threat in 2006. Roggio’s response is worth reading in full for those who are interested in this historical question, but I will highlight a few critical points. First, Roggio notes that known al Qaeda operatives served as leaders within the ICU; in fact, one reason I am deeply skeptical of the idea that Shabaab would have been marginalized absent the Ethiopian invasion is that Shabaab’s founder, Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, was the prot

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  • Bronwyn Bruton says:

    I very much appreciated this thoughtful analysis by Mr. Gartenstein-Ross. I’m not sure, however, why he considers this article a critique of “constructive disengagement” – that is, the strategy that I advanced in my report for the Council on Foreign Relations. Rather, Mr. Gertenstein-Ross is criticizing a series of articles in the popular press that I did not write. The failure of one (or several) independent journalists to make a good case for US disengagement from Somalia is disappointing, if it’s true – but has nothing to do with my report or the strategy of “constructive disengagement.”
    For example, Mr. Gartenstein-Ross takes issue with Mr. Foust for not dismissing the dangers posed by the Union of Islamic Courts, and for claiming that “al Shabaab would have been marginalized within the UIC absent the [Ethiopian] invasion.” I have never made the argument that al Shabaab would have been marginalized from the UIC absent the invasion. (For the record, I think that without the Ethiopian invasion, the UIC coalition would quickly have collapsed.) Implying that this argument is a consistent thread within “constructive disengagement”

  • Joshua Foust says:

    Thank you for the thorough response! I’d just like to make a few points in my own defense. The first is that, while I appreciate the thrust of this post, which is deflating a bunch of commonly held beliefs on Somalia (I didn’t know people HAD common beliefs on the country, hahaha), I think by making it about all arguments, instead of a specific one (mine, or the others mentioned here), the critique becomes unfocused. I’ll address some of that below.:
    1. I’m not aware of where I said in my piece that the ICU was moderate, or where I indicated there was evidence to think that it would have disbanded without an invasion. I merely pointed out that the ICU settled, however temporarily, much of the fighting in and around Mogadishu, and that the U.S.-based Ehtiopian invasion undid that settling (and the massive flow of refugees in the wake not of the ICU’s victory, but the Ethiopian invasion, speaks to that, I think). I can see why people saying that would be criticized, and I think you made a strong case for why that would be the case, but as you correctly note I am not a specialist in Somalia, so I couldn’t begin to make that argument.
    2. This is probably a bigger discussion, but a few al Qaeda operatives and a training camp don’t warrant an invasion. The AC-130 gunships that raked Ras Kamboni got their guys; I would assume that if the U.S. was really serious about killing off specific al Qaeda figures they could insert special operators, rather than funding a massive invasion by a neighbor most Somalis don’t like. This gets back at the Islamic boogeyman comment I made-the U.S. policy community, even still under Obama, overreacts to the mere presence of a few terrorist figures, when something other than a massive military response might actually be more effective in getting the targets while also not wrecking the communities where they operate.
    3. Lots of people “express interest” in aligning with al Qaeda and striking targets outside the country. But look, I never said AS is not a transnational danger-hell I jus wrote about their bombing Uganda!-I merely said that AS has only recently become a transnational threat. I’ll cop to getting the exact date of AS’s expansionist activity wrong. But I notice the dates on the documents you use as proof that AS is a nasty organization seeking regional jihad-they are all after the Ethiopian invasion. You note that the ICU is attacked for NOT having regional jihadist goals. Do you think the ICU would have developed a regional jihad focus had it been allowed to remain in power in 2006? Your evidence here doesn’t support that – it all deals with AS, after it split from ICU post-invasion.
    4. On the issue of whether we should incorporate lessons from Somaliland and Puntland, you answered one speculative with another. There’s nothing wrong with that – I do it all the time – but if you’re going to say that my idea will spread chaos, while complaining I don’t provide evidence to support my idea, shouldn’t you also provide evidence? In 2006, did the fighting that brought the ICU to power destabilize Somaliland and Puntland? I’m not sure it did. Would granting Somaliland independence somehow prevent it from becoming mired in southern Somalia’s chaos? I’m not sure how – Ethiopia’s sovereignty hasn’t kept things in the Ogaden from turning violent.
    I’m not sure how the war can be reasonably resolved without someone emerging victorious. Of course everyone would prefer to see the UN-backed kleptocracy do so, but it’s been a resounding failure. Right now, we have evidence that the group that almost secured victory, that we destroyed because of a few al Qaeda figures in their midst, was in fact more moderate and less expansionist than its successor. So, when we look at the options we have, the military ones seem to have failed, miserably. That’s why I’m casting about for alternatives.

  • Both Foust and Bronwyn Bruton have offered thoughtful responses to this post. First, let me acknowledge Bruton’s primary criticism: my article was in fact a critique of Foust’s arguments (and those of a few other commentators) rather than a refutation of constructive disengagement on the whole. I meant to acknowledge that in my concluding section, where I wrote: “This response to Foust does not prove that constructive disengagement is a bad idea.” Bruton is also surely right that his original report is the best place to begin in assessing the merits of constructive disengagement; my decision to weigh in on Foust’s work was in large part influenced by the fact that he and I had been discussing Somalia via e-mail for several days before his contribution to Need to Know, and I wanted to challenge and sharpen his specific thinking on the issue (something he has acknowledged via Twitter that I did in fact accomplish).
    Both Bruton and Foust allege that my article conflates too many different threads of commentators’ arguments. While I attempted to take care not to do that, both men are intelligent and discerning, so I will accept that their criticism may be correct. In particular, Bruton is right that his own arguments should not be confused with those of the commentators who have contributed shorter analyses to the subject. I will be addressing Bruton’s arguments later — certainly in my book about the Somali war, if not prior to that. Nonetheless, I maintain that there are several threads of argument that run through much of the constructive disengagement literature (if not Bruton’s work specifically); in my post, I cited to authors who make claims similar to Foust’s, and explained where I think several of their claims are insufficiently considered. In that way, my post was meant to question some of the dominant thinking on the subject in general, and not just be about Foust’s entry. Now, as to Foust’s specific responses:
    1. Foust is correct that he did not specifically say that the ICU was moderate (and, to be clear, we are all using “moderate” in a relative fashion: it probably would be more accurate to say that we are debating about whether it posed an external threat). But I don’t think my inference that he was making an argument similar to Lynch’s that the ICU was “relatively moderate” was unjustified — both due to his use of the phrase “Islamic bogeyman” to describe the U.S.’s perceptions, and also his reliance on Nir Rosen’s history of the Somali conflict. While Rosen also does not use the word “moderate,” his description speaks for itself: “Thousands of men and women welcomed [the ICU], clapping and singing in joy as the ICU’s victory convoy coursed through formerly warring neighborhoods. But the movement’s Islamist colors, and the fact that the ICU was said to have given shelter to a handful of wanted al-Qaeda suspects, did not sit well with the U.S. State Department’s sole Somalia analyst in the region at the time. And for Washington, the ICU became an intolerable alternative.” (In reality, attributing the U.S.’s perception to a single State Department analyst overlooks a number of analysts, particularly in military intelligence, who were involved in observing the group’s rise. Nor was the sole concern “a handful of wanted al-Qaeda suspects.”)
    2. Foust writes: “This is probably a bigger discussion, but a few al Qaeda operatives and a training camp don’t warrant an invasion.” He is correct that it’s a bigger discussion, one that I specifically tried to sideline in my original entry. For the record, I am agnostic as to what the American and international response should have been in 2006. The point I was making was not that an invasion was warranted, but that the ICU’s connections to al Qaeda and transnational jihadism more generally are often understated by some commentators. For one example, see this post I wrote at the Counterterrorism Blog in January 2007 in response to claims by Yglesias and Spencer Ackerman that the Bush administration only thought there were three terrorists in Somalia. (To be clear, Foust is not making the same arguments that Yglesias or Ackerman did; but my post, which borrows from ICG reports on Somalia, provides a bit more of a granular look at militants in Somalia than I have provided thus far in this discussion.)
    3. Foust writes that he never said Shabaab is not a transnational danger, but his original writing suggests the opposite: “It’s only in the last 60 days that al-Shabaab has shown any interest in expanding its activities beyond Somalia proper. And that expansion seems to be purely reactionary.” If their bombing of Uganda were purely reactionary, then eliminating the occupation should eliminate Shabaab’s transnational ambitions. So I stand by my original interpretation.
    Foust adds: “But I notice the dates on the documents you use as proof that AS is a nasty organization seeking regional jihad-they are all after the Ethiopian invasion. You note that the ICU is attacked for NOT having regional jihadist goals. Do you think the ICU would have developed a regional jihad focus had it been allowed to remain in power in 2006? Your evidence here doesn’t support that – it all deals with AS, after it split from ICU post-invasion.” Three points on this. First, the reason that the documents I reference about Shabaab are all post-invasion is because before its split with the ICU, Shabaab was considered a “wing” of the Islamic Courts; I was not until the split looking for statements from Shabaab as distinct from ICU messaging. Given that Aden Hashi ‘Ayro, Shabaab’s founder, reportedly received training in Afghanistan as the U.S. was preparing to attack the Taliban in 2001, my assumption is that Shabaab’s transnational jihadism can be traced to the period before the invasion. Second, Shabaab’s accusation that the ICU was limited to Somalia’s geographic borders is not precisely correct: among other things, it overlooks the ICU’s “Greater Somalia” ambitions. But third, Foust’s question is fair about what kind of focus the ICU would have developed had it been allowed to remain in power in 2006. I will note that commentators disagree on this point, and for brevity’s sake will delay my own answer for another day.
    4. Foust writes: “On the issue of whether we should incorporate lessons from Somaliland and Puntland, you answered one speculative with another.” That’s precisely correct. I’m not saying that his idea will spread chaos, only that it could — and given the problems with several other layers of analysis in his post, I don’t think we can make a predictive assessment based on what he wrote. He writes: “Would granting Somaliland independence somehow prevent it from becoming mired in southern Somalia’s chaos?” Perhaps, though I mentioned before that I’m agnostic on the independence point. The argument for independence is that this would allow it to continue on the path to stability because Somaliland could then enter into commercial agreements and do other things that it is prevented from at present. There may be costs to independence that outweigh the benefits, but the arguments of Saad Noor and others about the potential for chaos absent sovereignty are well taken.
    Finally, I agree with Fosut’s desire to cast about for alternatives to the status quo. But as he wrote in a brilliant response to the atrocious Afghanistan Study Group report, “it is a conversation that must be held from a position of knowledge.”

  • Dagmawi says:

    From the Bruton article:
    “During the 1990s, an al-Qaeda-linked group called al-Ittihad controlled a significant portion of southern Somalia, but quickly faced resistance and became defunct- without any intervention by the United States.”
    In fact, al-Ittihad morphed into the ICU. Aweys was a leader of Ittihad and emerged as a key figure of the ICU. Ittihad was defeated by an earlier Ethiopian invasion which destroyed its training grounds in Gedo.
    Both facts undermine the central idea of constructive disengagement.
    Without the 2006 Ethiopian invasion, the ICU would “likely” have swept into Puntland and Somaliland.
    Constructive disengagement by the USA in Afghanistan facilitated Taliban control and would “likely” do the same for Shabab in Somalia.

  • I.S. says:

    The composition of the UIC was not limited to Ittihad, it also included a number of Sufi (or, perhaps more accurately, non-Salafi) groups.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram