For more than a decade, Somalia has been Exhibit
A in the Hall of Statelessness, a place where the state had not merely weakened
into irrelevance but disappeared. Somalia's statelessness had defeated even
the world's only hyperpower, the United States, when it had intervened militarily
to restore order. Fourth Generation war theorists, myself included, frequently
pointed to Somalia as an example of the direction in which other places were
Then, over the past several weeks, a Blitzkrieg-like campaign by the Ethiopian
army seemed to change everything. A Fourth Generation entity, the Islamic Courts,
which had taken control of most of Somalia, was brushed aside with ease by Ethiopian
tanks and jets. A makeshift state, the Transitional Federal Government, which
had been created years ago by other states but was almost invisible within Somalia,
was installed in Mogadishu. The Somali state was restored – or so it seems.
This direct clash between the international order of states and anti-state,
Fourth Generation forces is a potentially instructive test case. If the Ethiopians
and their sponsors succeed in re-creating a self-sustaining Somali state, it
may put Fourth Generation elements elsewhere on the defensive. Conversely, if
the Somali state again fails, it will suggest that outside efforts to restore
states are unlikely to succeed and the future belongs to the Fourth Generation.
It is too soon to know what the outcome will be. However, we might want to ask
the question, what does each side need to accomplish in order to succeed?
The first thing the Transitional Federal Government and its Ethiopian and other
foreign backers must accomplish is to restore order. Many Somalis welcomed the
Islamic Courts because they did bring order. They shut down the local militias,
made the streets safe again and began the revival of commerce, which depends
Can the Transitional Federal Government do the same? Its problem is that its
main instrument is the Ethiopian army, which is hated by many Somalis. Its own
forces are largely warlord militias. If the TFG fails to bring order, not only
will it have failed to perform the first task of any state, it will make the
Islamic Courts look good in retrospect. Precisely this dynamic is now playing
itself out in Afghanistan.
The pro-state forces' second task is in tension with the first: the Ethiopian
Army must go home soon. "Soon" here means weeks at most. If the Ethiopian
invasion turns into an Ethiopian occupation, a nationalist resistance movement
is likely to emerge quickly. Such a nationalist resistance would have to ally
with the Islamic Courts, just as the nationalist resistance in Iraq has been
pushed into alliance with Islamic 4GW forces, including al-Qaeda. Non-state
forces are usually too weak physically to be picky about allies.
The third task facing the TFG is to split the Islamic Courts and incorporate
a substantial part of them into the new Somali state. In the end, political
co-option is likely to do more to end a 4GW insurgency than any action a military
What about the Islamic Courts? What do they need to do to defeat the state?
They have already accomplished their first task: avoid the Ethiopian army and
go to ground, preserving their forces and weapons for a guerrilla war. Had they
stood and fought, not only would they have lost, they would have risked annihilation.
Mao's rule, "When the enemy advances, we retreat," is of vital importance
to most 4GW forces.
The next task is harder: they must now regroup, keep most of their forces loyal,
supplied, paid and motivated, and begin a two-fold campaign, one against the
Ethiopians or any other foreign forces and the second against the Transitional
Federal Government. This will be a test of their organizational skills, and
it is by no means clear they have those skills. Time will tell, time probably
measured in weeks or months, not years.
Against occupying foreign forces, the Islamic Courts will need to wrap themselves
in nationalism as well as religion, so that they rather than the TFG are seen
as the legitimate Somali authorities. The fact that the TFG has to be propped
up by foreign troops makes this task relatively easy.
Against the TFG itself, the Islamic Courts' objective is the opposite of the
government's: it must make sure order is not re-established. Here, terror tactics
come into if play, and if car bombs, suicide attacks and the like spread in
Somalia, it will be a sign the Islamic Courts are organizing.
The Islamic Courts may have an unlikely ally here in the old war lords and clan
militias. The Islamic Courts suppressed these elements, but their comeback will
help, not hurt them. They were and may again become the main source of disorder,
and all disorder works to the Islamic Courts' advantage.
The new government in turn needs to suppress these forces just as the Islamic
Courts did, but it may be unable to do so, not only because it has no real army
of its own but also because it has warlords and militias as key constituents.
This mirrors the situation in Iraq, where the Shi'ite-dominated government cannot
act against Shiite militias because it is largely their creature.
How will it all turn out? My guess is that in Somalia as elsewhere, the dependence
of the wanna-be state on foreign troops will prove fatal. In the end, Fourth
Generation wars are contests for legitimacy, and no regime established by foreign
intervention can gain much legitimacy. On the other hand, if the Islamic Courts
cannot organize effectively, the new government could win by default. Either
way, it is safe to say that the outcome in Somalia will have an impact far beyond
that small, sad country's borders.