Somalia: Dry Up The Guns, Then Send Lawyers and Money

(Cross Posted and Updated from Daily KOS, Dec. 23, 2008)

Send lawyers, guns and money
The sh-t has hit the fan—Warren Zevon

“Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”—Isaac Asimov

Executive Summary

Recently, the UN granted the US authority to pursue Somali pirates both at sea and on land.  This gives the Obama Administration an opportunity to come to grips both with the problem of piracy in the strategically important Red Sea/Indian Ocean and with a troubled land that has been without an identity as a nation-state for about two decades.

It also gives the Obama Administration the chance to develop approaches to the Global war on Terrorism (“GWOT”)that may be both less kinetic and more effective than what has gone before.

As Warren Zevon indicated, this problem revolves around lawyers, guns and money.  Specifically, a solution involves drying up the flow of arms and ammunition across the Red Sea from Yemen, pitting hostile factions against each other and providing support to the last man standing, including the development of a functioning legal system, something that has been a main source of legitimacy for the Islamic Courts Union (“ICU”) insurgents.


Currently, Somalia, like Caesar’s Gaul, is divided in there parts, which are:

1)  Somaliland (former British Somaliland), a functional successor state that would be recognized, except for the African Union’s (“AU”) reticence about changes to national borders;

2)  Puntland, a less functional successor state, home to many of the Somali pirates; and

3)  Southern Somalia (largely the former Italian Somaliland), a true failed state, an absurdest netherworld where factions fight post-modern wars while children die of measles, that includes areas such as Kismayo, the Juba Valley and the former capital of Mogadishu.

The vast majority of the population of these regions are ethnic Somalis of the Muslim faith.  The Somali are a Clan-based society, that has traditionally had a pastoral economy and culture.

That the population is homogeneous ethnically and religiously does not mean that it is not divided in other ways.  Clans, for example, were a major check on the rapid progress made in 2006 by the ICU, prior to the Ethiopian intervention.  The (somewhat weak) Transitional Federal Government (“TFG”) is the latest of several attempt to restore a functioning government to the failed state.  The ICU (and its more radical off shoot, Al-Shabab) are Islamist groups attempting to restore order on a Salafist template.  Somaliland and Puntland cautiously recognize the TFG, but keep their autonomy.  Elements within the ICU are seeking to join the TFG to attain legitimacy and recognition.

Finally, the pirates, mainly headquartered in Puntland, are probably former smugglers. (Somalia had a negligible fishing industry despite rich fisheries in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and Somalis tend not to eat fish. So media characterizations of the pirates as “fishermen” are unlikely.)  How they factor into the conflict with the ICU and Al-Shabab is unknown.  However, the money they have been able to extort has likely influenced the flow of arms out of Yemen, which some have characterized as the “Wal-mart” for small arms and ammunition in the region.

The Yojimbo/Fist Full of Dollars Strategy

Somalia is a chaotic system that is reaching disequilibrium.

The Ethiopians, who pushed back the ICU in December 2006,  had difficulty maintaining order and are withdrew. The ICU and Al-Shabab control most of the south (with the exception of parts of Mogadishu, the former capital) and are expanding into Puntland, essentially the status quo at the time that Ethiopia intervened in December 2006. The Clans in Puntland, different than the southern Clans from which most ICU members are drawn, who served as an initial check on the ICU, may have lost credibility by acquiescing to an intervention by the Christian-dominated Ethiopians, the Somalis’ traditional enemies.

The money and notoriety of the Pirates may allow them to buy more of the weapons (and, especially, the ammunition) traditionally smuggled out of Yemen. Based on current spotty reports in the Media, it is difficult to see precisely how this has affected the balance of power.

Since the US now has UN authority to operate at sea and on land against the Somali Pirates, an effort should be made to interdict, and possibly direct, the flow of weapons into the failed state. As with the situation depicted in Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo or Leone’s film Fist Full of Dollars, we would be in a position to thus set the factions, for example the Pirates and Al Shabab, against each other, avoiding the disruptive effect of large numbers of US “boots on the ground.”

A large US ground presence, in contrast, could generate the kind of violent reaction seen in the “Black Hawk Down” incident in 1993 and the more recent resistance to Ethiopian occupation. Once the factions are weakened, the US can provide Civil Affairs (“CA”), Civil Military Operations (“CMO”) and US State Department and other civilian agency (for example, US Agency for International Development [“USAID”]) assistance to help restore order. Due to their success under then-LtGen Zinni in the early part of OPERATION RESTORE HOPE, the Marine Corps, probably employing a reinforced Infantry Battalion called a Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) (“MEU [SOC]”), should be tasked to provide security, an indispensable aspect of any successful humanitarian mission.

A key source of the legitimacy for the ICU is the Sharia Courts they set up that provided civil and criminal adjudication and law enforcement, in a place that was both stateless and lawless. A major factor in achieving success would be to create a functional legal system from the ground up, that would not, as Al-Shabab recently did, execute a 13 year-old rape victim for want of chastity.  Doing this at the lowest possible level, at the village and neighborhood level, is another key element of any success.


Early in the 19th Century, the US asserted its sovereignty through operations against the Tripolitanian Pirates. This operation involved effective cooperation between the Department of State, the Navy, the Marine Corps and (rather dodgy) foreign allies. The success of this operation, which gave Marine Officers their traditional Mameluke swords, provides a paradigm for this operation to restore sovereignty to another state. It would also create an opportunity for a transition to a US grand strategy that is less kinetic and more oriented towards inter-agency cooperation and the restoration of order through a variety of approaches along the spectrum of conflict.