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Defense Analysis Bulletin No. 3

07 March 2007

By Bipasha Ray

An occasional series reviewing reports and articles pertaining to international security, terrorism, U.S. military and defense policy.

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US Aid to Somali Warlords

Is American aid pushing Somalia towards a successful government or only further entrenching warlords at the top of the failed state's power hierarchy? Is the United States' emphasis on counterterrorism in the Horn of Africa actually encouraging terrorist recruitment?

The Islamic Courts Union and its rise to prominence in Somalia shocked many western observers. U.S./CIA military and economic aid to "secular" warlords was part of an effort to counter this development. This was done under the aegis of the "war on terrorism" as the Bush administration asserted that the Islamists were aiding and hosting al-Qaeda terrorists -- a claim that has been widely contested.1

A report in the latest International Security issue, "Warlordism in Comparative Perspective" by Kimberly Marten argues that the US aid was misguided and has only helped sustain the domination of the warlords.

Warlords are primarily interested in retaining their power and ability to dispense political favors, according to Marten, and hence oppose the transition to a functioning, stable and transparent government. This is evident as 13 previous governments have failed since the 1991 collapse of Siad Barre's government, and the current transitional government is teetering.2 

Marten identifies a set of factors in Somalia that could drive an anti-warlord revolution to success: domestic trading groups with a stake in the local economy, a communication network created by the ubiquity of cellphones, and the knowledge and influence of a large, widespread diaspora.

She concludes that outside powers like the United States cannot create lasting governments and a stable state just by forcing elections and a written constitution -- as has been much hyped in Afghanistan and Iraq.3 Rather, outside aid needs to go toward the local populace -- to help them change the status quo of warlordism by supporting education and literacy and building reliable communication and transportation infrastructure.4

Destabilizing the Horn of Africa?

A recent Foreign Affairs article "Blowing the Horn" concludes that American counterterrorism policies in the Horn of Africa favor military tactics over diplomacy and have seriously set back nation-building, reconstruction and promotion of good governance in Somalia.

John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen find, for example, that the United States gave Somali warlords $150,000 a month to fight Islamists -- compared to a mere $250,000 total US contribution to the $10 million Somali peace process. The United States also gives far less humanitarian aid to Somalia than to other countries in the region.

At the same time, American support of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, which displaced the Islamic Courts, has also unleashed regional instability as historical resentment, enmity and border issues between Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia return to the fore. The U.S. has armed and trained Ethiopian soldiers who work as America's "proxies" in the Horn but this alliance has heightened tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea (which supports the Somali Islamists) according to Terence Lyons in his recent report "Avoiding Conflict in the Horn of Africa: U.S. Policy Toward Ethiopia and Eritrea."

Retreating Islamists have left a political vacuum and Somali society has descended into extreme lawlessness.5 As more civilians are killed in air strikes meant for terrorists, the country has become a more fertile recruiting ground for al-Qaeda since the Islamist Courts were toppled, according to John Judis, writing in The New Republic.6

Najum Mushtaq calls the American intervention "ill-timed and ill-conceived" as it has alienated an entire country in its pursuit of a few "terrorists" who might not even be in Somalia.

Additionally, US military strategy in the Horn has been spotty and incoherent. Even Vance Serchuk, who supports increased military action in the region, criticizes the lack of "institutional memory" citing the frequent rotations of soldiers in and out of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa base in Djibouti. This prevents the development of local specialized knowledge and contacts that would be the tools of an effective peacemaking and diplomatic presence.

Does Terrorism "Work"?

Terrorists achieve almost nothing by carrying out attacks, especially on civilians. That's what Max Abrahms concludes after studying all 28 groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations by the State Department since 2001.

In coming to this conclusion, he examines their policy goals and activities as well as the consequent political and social outcomes. His study in International Security, "Why Terrorism Does Not Work," finds that the groups achieved their goals only 7 percent of the time. And the groups that primarily targeted civilians over military targets almost never succeeded in achieving their goals, according to Abrahms.

This conclusion is interesting, considering the dramatic post-9/11 jump in terrorism and fatalities that has been documented in a recent study by the Project on Defense Alternatives as well as a Mother Jones report.

Abrahms' examination of terrorist success implicitly raises the question of motivation. Relevant to this is Robert Pape's recent book "Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terorrism" where he concludes that suicide bombers are often spurred by nationalistic rather than religious impulses -- i.e. to force occupiers to withdraw from what the suicide bombers consider their homeland.

A 2002 PDA briefing offers an additional insight: Regardless of what practical demands the terrorists may proclaim, they intend some of their activity to rouse their publics (catalytic strategy) and see some violent acts as ends in themselves -- either as a "desperate act of defiance and protest (expressive terrorism), or as blows against a social order they regard as corrupt beyond reform (nihilistic terrorism)."


1. Stephen Zunes, "Somalia as a Military Target: Updated," Foreign Policy in Focus, 14 January 2007.

2. "Somalia: The Tough Part is Ahead," International Crisis Group, 26 January 2007; Michael A. Weinstein, "Somalia Reverts to Political Fragmentation," Power and Interest News Report, 23 February 2007.

3. See also Khadija O. Ali, "Force Won't Bring Peace to Somalia," Foreign Policy in Focus, 19 January 2007.

4. See also Ken Menkhaus, "There and Back Again in Somalia," Middle East Report Online, 11 February 2007.

5. "US Warship Monitors Pirates," BBC News, 26 February 2007.

6. See also "This time it's revenge," The Economist, 11 January 2007; Jonathan S. Landay and Shashank Bengali, "U.S. Policy in the Horn of Africa May Aid al-Qaida, Experts Warn," McClatchy Newspapers, 22 December 2006.