Reflections on the shortcoming of US policy in Afghanistan have brought lessons that can be used to rethink American policy toward Somalia.

By Michelle Gavin

As the foreign policy community continues to reflect on United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and grapple with the failure of decades-long efforts to support political stability in the country, broad areas of consensus have emerged from the diversity of perspectives on what went wrong. Nearly universally, policymakers and analysts agree that part of the problem was the delusion that the deeply corrupt government in Kabul was a viable authority or an attractive alternative to the Taliban.


In Somalia, where another internationally-backed nation-building exercise has been underway for many years, recent developments have increased the urgency of questions about the nature of the federal government that is supposed to represent an accountable, legitimate alternative to al-Shabab.

The term of the current President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, expired in February, but his machinations to stay in office have delayed the electoral process and nearly led to a total breakdown of order in Mogadishu this past spring. The tenuous situation was temporarily salvaged when Farmajo, under domestic and international pressure, ceded control of the electoral process and associated security arrangements to Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble.

Now the fragile government is on the brink again, consumed by the president and prime minister’s tussle for control of the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA)—a power struggle sharpened by the murder of Ikran Tahlil. Tahlil, who worked for NISA, disappeared this summer. While Farmajo’s camp claimed she was killed by al-Shabaab, al-Shabaab itself denies involvement, which is uncharacteristic for an organization eager to emphasize its ability to strike government targets at will.

Rumors abound that Tahlil was killed by her superiors, and Roble is insisting on a full accounting for her death and new leadership at NISA; Farmajo is attempting to shield NISA’s former leadership, keep the organization involved in any investigation of Tahlil’s death, and retain control of the organization.

Imagining what all this looks like from a Somali perspective is a depressing exercise. Somalia remains desperately poor, and its overwhelmingly young population has tremendous difficulty accessing education, employment, and health care. Insecurity is pervasive. The political spectacle in Mogadishu does not hold much promise for improving these conditions.

Clearly, Somalis have good reasons to doubt the integrity of security institutions that are supposed to keep them safe, and the lack of clarity about where authority resides only further erodes confidence in government. All of these developments cast a pall over an electoral process which should, in theory, bind Somalia’s leadership to the desires of its citizens.

Afghanistan and Somalia are, of course, countries with distinct and complex social structures, different histories, and complicated relationships with their neighbors and foreign powers. But in both cases, the United States has been clear about the forces it opposes while remaining ambivalent about those it ostensibly supports.

American leaders have lashed policy goals to governments that engender neither loyalty nor optimism for the future and that concern themselves more with maintaining power and access to spoils than with improving the lives of their citizens. Many capable Somalis work hard every day to improve the situation of the country, and the demands for truth and justice in the case of Ikran Tahlil—which have come not just from the prime minister’s camp but from ordinary citizens—signal a real desire for accountability. Outside actors need to grapple with the reality that these people of goodwill have yet to be presented with worthy political leadership around which to coalesce.

Michelle Gavin

Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies

Michelle GavinMichelle D. Gavin is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She has over twenty years of experience in international affairs in government and non-profit roles. She was formerly the managing director of The Africa Center, a multidisciplinary institution dedicated to increasing understanding of contemporary Africa. From 2011 to 2014 she was the United States ambassador to Botswana and served concurrently as the United States representative to the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

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