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 headed.
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 on order.
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 can take.
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 guerilla 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 warlords 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 Shiite-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.
William Lind [send him mail] is an analyst based in Washington, DC.