Backing a "Good Islamist" in a Wrecked Somalia

"The Most Failed State," a piece in The New Yorker's December 14 issue, scrutinizes Somalia and offers glimpses of the mix of nose-holding and open-mindedness U.S. leaders will need in Afghanistan if they're going to thin the ranks of the insurgency by getting "good Taliban" to defect.

Somalia's besieged president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, has three wives and presides over a government that built Sharia into the legal system. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed America's "very strong support" for Sharif and his shattered country's peace process.

In his new New Yorker piece, Jon Lee Anderson reports that American officials considered killing Sharif in air strikes back in 2006. Sharif was traveling with "jihadis linked to Al Qaeda who were on America’s wanted list." U.S. diplomats argued Sharif was redeemable. Anderson writes:

In the end, Sharif wasn’t killed. As the official described it, a schism in the Courts movement was what ultimately saved him. His faction eventually broke with the more extreme wing; he favored political compromise, and lobbied to have the word “jihad” taken out of the Courts’ charter. Suddenly, Sharif was seen as useful: the good Islamist.

The "bad" Islamists, if I may be forgiven for expressing something complex so crudely, are insurgents known as the Shabaab. Sharif told Anderson that enshrining Sharia was a pragmatic move: "He told me that imposing Sharia was one of the Shabaab’s main demands, and so 'they can have no excuse for continuing the war.' He paused, and said, 'Actually, they will not be satisfied whatever we do, but it will erode their support among the people.'"

Let's pause for a second here. I referred to Sharif as "besieged." This is not figurative. As Anderson reports, "Even within the Presidential compound, he moved by car, in his motorcade of black Land Cruisers, guarded by Ugandan troops."

Finally, because it links up with possible approaches to Afghanistan, I want to quote a few sentences about Bashir Rageh, a Somali "warlord" Anderson met with:

The militiamen from his sub-clan, the Abgal, were being paid by the government, and so, technically, he no longer had a private militia. But they were still doing what they had always done: defending the area where he lived, and where they lived. Standing on the balcony of my suite, he pointed to a spot near the beach about two miles away, and said, “That’s my house.” He moved his finger imperceptibly to the left, and said, “That’s the front line.” His men were there. He had put them at the service of Sharif. “Now I play a backstage role.”

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