Today the White House took the controversial step of granting immunity to aid agencies operating in Somalia. Numerous political and security concerns have limited the response’s scale and time-frame, and a growing consensus is realizing that waiting for al-Shabaab’s approval is no longer feasible. The insurgents are certainly liable to siphon international aid, tax the agencies or kill their workers, all problems that could end up back on President Barack Obama’s desk. But considering the extreme risks, opening the aid gates to maximum capacity will likely cause less suffering and regret.
One U.S. official admitted that the administration has no illusions of a “grand bargain” with the group, and succinctly explained, "Our number one goal is to save lives.” Aid groups were directed to proceed into areas “where the level of security and acquiescence of local authorities is deemed acceptable.” From there a national system may be constructed if conditions permit.
To this end the White House assured aid groups that they can deliver supplies without fear of prosecution from the U.S. Treasury, a cited fear of humanitarian officials. Charities “must only pledge their best efforts to combat attempts by al-Shabab to hoard aid or collect taxes on supplies,” now deemed a low security threat compared to the alternative. Multiple news sources clarified that no specific law forbids distribution in Somalia, but when the State Department designated al-Shabaab a terrorist organization in 2008, aid officials feared that bribes, tolls and other “costs of doing business” could draw punishment.
A purely humane sentiment is unlikely to be circulating through the administration; U.S. officials cite Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s privately debated link between food and security. The Pentagon believes that al-Shabab could became an even greater threat if Somalia further destabilizes, while loose guns pose a greater threat than loose aid. Regardless, CBS News reported no “major disagreement” within the administration and the operation is moving forward once donations are secured.
New U.S. aid may be headed for the UN’s World Food Program, the largest of the organizations operating in Somalia. The White House and UN should also consider diverting as much aid as possible through currently recognized groups, such as the International Red Cross. Although an emergency response must criss-cross Somalia’s central and southern territory, accelerating tolerated organizations first may deliver aid quicker than forcing it through the UN.
One possible system would keep UN programs in Mogadishu and leave the south to apolitical groups.
The key to a functional emergency response is to reduce friction within Somalia’s ad hoc system. Few countries, if any, are more scrambled and each strand of chaos must be targeted for potential elimination. al-Shabab’s source of friction isn’t going anywhere in the near-term, nor will a non-existent infrastructure and political authority suddenly materialize. This leaves the bureaucratic mass between Washington, the UN, African Union (AU) and Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) as a realistic challenge to overcome. Red tape has tied Somalis to their fate and must be cut wherever possible.
A lack of trust due to corruption and an undeveloped economy has kept Western capitals at a distance from the TFG, which is only now beginning to prove its worth. Risks remain high, but Somalia’s famine offers the opportunity to lower these barriers, as the international community and TFG must develop trust after the drought has passed.
The government also needs to deliver services as well, but most U.S. financial assistance currently flows to the AU’s military campaign. Viewed as the more reliable force, the AU has earned its new reputation by seizing whole districts in Somalia and engaging locals. Civilian casualties run higher than the AU will admit, but it is exploiting openings created by the drought. AMISOM is moving and adapting quicker than any other force inside Somalia, partly because its logistics is already established and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni demands monthly progress from his troops.
However the AU also learnt a few things from Somalia’s former prime minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who spearheaded an extensive Western media campaign to promote the AU’s gains. AMISOM is now leading the propaganda effort after suffering repeated body-blows through 2009 and 2010. Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, AMISOM Force spokesperson, condemned Tuesday’s attempted suicide bombing in Mogadishu by relating to the drought: “In the midst of a famine seizing Somalia the extremists are choosing to focus on killing, not saving life... AMISOM Forces are in the middle of conducting security operations in the capital to increase the areas of the capital under government control and safeguard Somalis.”
Ultimately, though, the Somalia’s national government will require its own emergency funds. If it fails the test then it fails. Somalis believe that the TFG can only win permanent support by defeating al-Shabaab and effectively governing. One without the other passes Somalia into the next stage of its vicious cycle.