Mohamed Haji Ingiriis makes a case for peace talks with Al-Shabaab in Somalia on the model of the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. This blog post builds on an earlier article published in Contemporary Security Policy.
The ongoing talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan held in Doha and Moscow have generated some enthusiasm in Somalia, as many Somalis demand similar talks with Harakaat Al-Shabaab Al-Mujaahiduun (Al-Shabaab).
Al-Shabaab, Somalia’s Taliban, has evidently heard of the growing demands from the Somali public for United States to have direct negotiations with the insurgent movement, like the regime in Kabul. Thus far, nonetheless, there is no statement from the insurgency movement. Al-Shabaab’s silence can be interpreted both as an acceptance or a rejection of any talks.
For many years, Al-Shabaab has insisted on not talking to the Western-backed ‘puppet’ regimes in Mogadishu. Yet privately some elements within the Al-Shabaab leadership contacted and told the current president of the regime in Mogadishu that they would be ready to talk to him.
Indeed, Al-Shabaab negotiated successfully in the past with some African governments like South Africa in 2010 for safety and security issues around the World Cup (see Stig Jarle Hansen’s, Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group, 2013). This is an indication that Al-Shabaab is open to negotiations, apparently when that benefit their politics.
The Legitimacy and Strategy
The strategy of Al-Shabaab is to gain a bigger bargain from the United States or other international community involving Somalia. For the calculative Al-Shabaab leadership, talking to the big powers is much more beneficial than talking to a dysfunctional failed state in Somalia.
In many ways, Al-Shabaab is similar to the Taliban, which has long refused to sit and negotiate with the regime in Kabul but accepted only negotiating with the United States, because – like Al-Shabaab leadership – the Taliban leadership see the Western-backed Afghan entity as a ‘puppet regime’.
Negotiations for talks with insurgency groups like Al-Shabaab or Taliban start with a tit-for-tat questions of legitimacy: who should talk to who, what, when and why. But the end goal is a political settlement to create peace among war-torn societies like Somalia and Afghanistan.
If one can draw a lesson from the Taliban manoeuvres, Al-Shabaab will at last come to the table with the regime in Mogadishu. In the third round of the negotiations between the regime in Kabul and the Taliban, the Afghan leadership came to the table, not as an official state government, but more or less as an observer entity.
A New American Approach?
In Somalia, the United States can certainly play the role of Russia is currently playing in Afghanistan. Historically, Washington has a history of violent engagement with Somalia in the 1990s, not much less than the Moscow’s violent engagement with Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The United States can now change the course by taking another route. It needs to engage with all Somali stakeholders including Al-Shabaab, regardless of their political or religious position. In this way, the United States can change the bad image held by many Somalis that Washington works against Somali interests both past and present times.
Today, there are many and multiple (internal and external) conflicts in Somalia, but the main contemporary critical conflict is the one between Al-Shabaab and the international community forces in Somalia. The regime in Mogadishu acts in this war as a rubber stamp for the United States to legitimise its operations in the form of drone attacks on the Al-Shabaab areas in southern Somalia.
The African Union Forces, funded by the Western countries, particularly the European Union, are seen by most Somalis as a mercenary forces for the United States. The AMISOM forces are doing a good job for the United States to protect Al-Shabaab from the corrupt regime in Mogadishu.
By sending drones from the air to Al-Shabaab, the United States continues to frustrate the capacity and capability of Al-Shabaab to conduct and carry out regular attacks outside Mogadishu, but Washington will hardly eliminate the capacity of Al-Shabaab to conduct usual attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere in East and Horn of Africa region.
Yet, during the course of my fieldwork research in Somalia over the last four years, many Somali elders and intellectuals in the Somali capital city of Mogadishu and elsewhere in southern Somalia would regularly express concern about the United States’s aggressive and uncompromising approach at Al-Shabaab, while negotiating with Taliban on the other hand.
“Why is the United States not positively engage with Al-Shabaab? Why is the United States constantly conducting airstrike against Al-Shabaab in Somalia, but not against the Taliban in Afghanistan?” These were some of the questions posed by local Somalis on the streets or sitting in Somalia cafes.
Recent research into the Taliban in Afghanistan revealed similarly that the Taliban is not that uniquely cruel and that compared to other 20th-century ideologies such as socialism and communism, they have killed less people and rarely been charged with genocide. This can also be applied to Al-Shabaab.
At a time Somalia celebrates more than three decades of an absence of functional governance in southern Somalia, there is no better time to directly talk to armed insurgency like Al-Shabaab posing threat to the external attempts to impose a type of suitable entity for Mogadishu.
Mohamed Haji Ingiriis is pursuing a doctoral degree at the Faculty of History, University of Oxford, the UK. He published “Building peace from the margins in Somalia: The case for political settlement with Al-Shabaab”, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(4), 2018, 512-536, available here.