NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Last month, Ethiopian troops re-entered Somalia to join the Kenyan army and forces of the African Union against the al-Qaida-linked terrorist group al-Shabab. Ethiopia last invaded Somalia in 2006 and withdrew three years later. Shabab's lost both territory and popular support in Somalia, but analysts describe Somalia's transitional federal government as weak, incompetent and corrupt.
So what, if anything, should the U.S. and the West do now? Jeffrey Gettleman, East Africa bureau chief of The New York Times, joins us from his home in Nairobi. Nice to have you back.
JEFFREY GETTLEMAN: Glad to be here.
CONAN: And joining us here in Studio 3A is Bronwyn Bruton, a deputy director at the Atlantic Center(ph), where she focuses on East Africa policy. And thanks very much for coming in.
BRONWYN BRUTON: Absolutely.
CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, let's start with you. Ethiopia left Somalia two and a half years ago after significant casualties and very little to show for their efforts. What's different now?
GETTLEMAN: Not a whole lot, actually. There's momentum in the region to get rid of Shabab, and Ethiopia seems to be piling on. The Kenyans came into Somalia a few months ago. The African Union has been making some progress in Mogadishu, the capital. So I think the Ethiopians felt that this was a good opportunity to finish the Shabab once and for all.
CONAN: And if they get to the Port of Beledweyne, will they largely succeed?
GETTLEMAN: Well, here's what a lot of us are worried about. The Shabab may be defeated as a conventional force. They may no longer be able to administer territory, but they're probably going to go underground and re-emerge as something like al-Qaida in East Africa and focus purely on terrorism and probably outside of Somalia. So they could become even more dangerous if they're vanquished on the battlefield.
CONAN: Let's bring Bronwyn Bruton into the conversation. It's interesting to remember, the force in Somalia when the Ethiopians invaded the first time with the Islamic Courts Union, they morphed into Shabab, which, well, Shabab will say drove the Ethiopians out.
BRUTON: They did, and I think that this really highlights the challenge that's facing the U.S. right now. The problem with al-Shabab is that, you know, they're the result of too much meddling by the external community, to a certain degree. The Shabab would not exist today if it hadn't been for the overassertive - brutal, in fact, efforts of the Ethiopian government, and they were backed by the U.S.
And the risk that Jeff just pointed out as well is basically that by being too assertive now in combating the Shabab, you know, by decimating them, by forcing them to go underground, the U.S. could actually make them into a more dangerous entity than they currently are.
CONAN: Yet by forcing them to go underground before these interventions, they had the transitional government bottled up to a couple of blocks in Mogadishu. They were controlling vast areas of territory in the midst of a famine. They were not letting resources - food, medicine - into those areas. They were also providing training grounds for other terrorists.
BRUTON: It's true, and it's a really upsetting development. And it's particularly upsetting, I think, when we stop and consider the fact that the creation of al-Shabab owes so much to U.S. counter-terror policies. It puts us in a tough position now to say, well, on the one hand, we want to be helpful. On the other hand, the U.S.'s response to the Shabab's rise has not been to say, well, we need to really flood Somalia with humanitarian relief. We need to correct this imbalance that we've caused by making sure the Somali people are OK.
On the contrary, the U.S. pretty much stopped food relief to Somalia, starting in 2009. So, you know, the best thing that the U.S. can do, I think, is to really make sure that we take care of the Somali people. The Shabab, it's easy to see them as the result of the terrorist ideology, but we have to remember 90 percent of them are children. They're the youth. That's what the Shabab means. They're under the age of 20 years old. They've been misled. You know, they're desperate kids who have no future. And that's what the Somalis see in al-Shabab.
You know, they hate the leaders who have corrupted their kids, and it's very much in the U.S. interest to knock those leaders out. They're doing that, hopefully, carefully with these drones and by targeted attacks. But at the bottom of it, the Shabaab is the result of the fact that the Somalis are poor, desperate and futureless.
CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, from your vantage point there in Nairobi, is that an accurate description of the situation with Shabaab in Somalia?
GETTLEMAN: Yeah, more or less. I mean, I think a lot of people resent not just the leaders, but the rank-and-file fighters who have been terrorizing them. But I think what's important to remember is even if the Shabaab are defeated, stability in Somalia is not around the corner. There - already we're seeing the emergence of warlords or the return of warlords. There are still parts of the country that are pirate sanctuaries, and the transitional government has, you know, continually embarrassed itself in many ways.
So this isn't the, you know, the end of Somalia's troubles if the Shabaab are defeated. And I think what is troubling is that we're not seeing a lot of talk of what to do next after the Shabaab are gone, if they are gone, and you're going to have more armies meddling in Somalia and present in Somalia than you have had for a long time right at the moment when they're trying to form a new government. So that may not go over so well either.
CONAN: More armies in addition to Kenya and Ethiopia?
GETTLEMAN: Yeah, you have Ugandans there. You have Burundians there. You have the Djiboutians there, the American government. The French government have, you know, special operations in Somalia. So you have this - and the mandate of the transitional government expires in August, and at that point, everybody's going to have to sit down and figure out what to do with a government for Somalia. And at that point, you're going to have all these different players at the table who have their own local favorites and proxy forces.
And Bronwyn has written a lot about this, but there's this belief that the only way for Somalia to be stable is it to happen from within a grassroots, local governance, bottom-up approach. And we're just not seeing that, so I'm afraid that the - a lot of the problems of famine and underdevelopment and piracy are going to continue unless there's some serious progress made in governance. And we're just - nobody's really talking about that. It's a military story right now, and that's never been the solution.
CONAN: Bronwyn Bruton, you wrote about outside interference from Ethiopia, yes, and supported by the United States, Kenya now and, indeed, the description of the African Union forces there by Jeffrey Gettleman in The New York Times. Outside forces also included al-Qaida.
BRUTON: They did. Although back in 2006 when Ethiopia invaded Somalia, I think that the threat from al-Qaida was greatly exaggerated, and the influence that al-Qaida was exaggerated. I think that there is a consensus within expert opinion now that the Ethiopian invasion did far more harm than good and that if we could turn back the clock, I think that we would have a very different strategy playing out.
CONAN: Yet, al-Qaida did provide funding to al-Shabaab and training to its troops.
BRUTON: It did, absolutely. And, you know, that's a point of debate within the intelligence community too. There is a very a strong school of thought that said basically that Somalia is inoculated from terrorists groups, that in the past, in the 1990s, for example, al-Qaida tried to gain a foothold in Somalia. It has failed miserably because of the conditions on the ground. The Somalis don't like foreign interference. They don't trust the Arab brand of Islam. The leaders that al-Qaida tried to work with on the ground were provincial. They were not interested in the international jihad. And so, you know, al-Qaida's re-entry into Somalia in 2006, you know, it was alarming, but it was not a forgone conclusion that Somalia would become a safe haven.
CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, the factor that, of course, we have to consider here is the famine and that has been so damaging in the southern and eastern parts of Somalia. With the losses, territorial losses of Shabaab, has more aid been able to be delivered to more people?
GETTLEMAN: Not really because this has happened and it's happened in an environment of conflict, so the Kenyan military has taken over certain parts of Somalia from the Shabaab. The Ethiopians have done the same thing. The African Union has done same thing, but it's part of a conflict. So the aid groups are not able to access those areas very easily right now. And there's even been increased displacement and suffering in some areas. I was just in Mogadishu a few weeks ago, and I wrote a story about an increase, a sharp increase in the number of women who are being raped both by government forces and freelance militias and also by the Shabaab. So, you know, we're not seeing like a real dramatic difference on the ground. This is still kind of at the midpoint of this story.
And I think the biggest factor with the famine is that it's been raining a lot in East Africa. This year has had very heavy, steady rains. So I don't think you're going to have the food crisis next year that you had this past year, but things are still, you know, very fluid and very messy on the ground in Somalia.
CONAN: And, Bronwyn Bruton, as we look ahead towards if indeed the scenario we painted - nothing is certain in any conflict, but if Shabaab is fragmented and splintered and if it is reduced as a force incapable any longer of administrating territories, all these different players, how do you get them to sit and wait or encourage the development of what you were talking about, an internal solution?
BRUTON: The answer to that is not a happy one, unfortunately. When we talk about Somali development, we have to understand the illiteracy rate is so high. The ability of Somalis to do something as simple as send money from Minnesota to Mogadishu to support their family has now been crushed. And that's a big part of the economy.
CONAN: This is a hawala system.
BRUTON: The hawala system, yes. That's right. You know, it basically is a long, long haul that we're talking about, where you need to do development and education at the most basic level. It's really hard for me to take seriously the idea of nation building when you're talking about a group of people who don't have a good grasp of what democracy is, and requires so much, you know, just basic building block work that nobody really wants to do, least of all, I think, the United States.
CONAN: We're talking with Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Center, where she focuses on East Africa policy. Also with us, Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times East Africa bureau chief. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, Jeffrey Gettleman, if that's the situation, the agencies one would naturally turn to would be the African Union, the regional power, and then from there to the United Nations.
GETTLEMAN: Yeah. And it's interesting. The African Union is really stepping up in this situation. They are having more success in Somalia than they've had maybe anywhere else in Africa. And part of the reason is they're absorbing casualties. They, you know, they have suffered something like 500, 600, 700 men who've been killed. And the United States left Somalia in 1993 after 20 service members killed in the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. The U.N. is not willing to take those casualties.
So one reason why the African Union has been successful in pacifying Mogadishu, to a large degree, is because they're the only ones that are willing to, you know, have their guys get killed day in and day out. It's an ugly war. The Shabaab guys are determined fighters. They're pretty good with the suicide bombs and asymmetrical tactics. And they're even decent street fighters when it comes to going toe-to-toe with the African Union. So like I was saying before, we're not finished here by any means.
But what we're seeing is a momentum right now that resembles what happened in 2006, where you have all these different players working together to some degree to push out the Islamists, in this case, the Shabaab. And I think, you know, that's going to happen.
I think they're not going to be able hold territory the way they were a few years ago. But it's not going to be the end of Somalia's misery. And it would be good to see more talk about, you know, how to begin to develop a political system that the Somalis actually believe in because so few, you know, have any faith in the transitional federal government. These people do not represent the average guy or woman out in the Somali hinterland. And that's the problem.
CONAN: And, Bronwyn Bruton, we're talking about Somalia, yet two fairly large parts of what we used to call Somalia are no longer consider themselves to be part of Somalia. That's Somaliland and Puntland. And are we going to see more and more fragmentation? Is that part possible?
BRUTON: It is possible. And I think it's a big fear on the part of many Somalis. Opinion is divided in Somalia. The northern territory of Somaliland, for example, declared its independence 20 years ago, and they have no desire to be reunited with their colleagues in the south. But many other people want to see Somalia made whole again. And it - a big concern when you talk about the invasion of countries like Kenya and Ethiopia is that it is going to damage Somali pride. And it is actually going to give the Shabaab a boost because Somalis who are - who do not want to see parts of their territory effectively annexed by Kenya or by Ethiopia are potentially going to revolt.
CONAN: And, Jeffrey Gettleman, let's go back to where we began. If Shabaab is shattered, you mentioned that it does have overseas branches. There was an attack by Shabaab in Uganda. Might there be more, and where does Shabaab still have capabilities outside of Somalia?
GETTLEMAN: Well, it's funny you bring that up. There was just a warning a couple days ago by the British Embassy in Nairobi that a terrorist attack was in the final stages of planning, and it warned people in Nairobi to stay away from malls and nightclubs and public places. The fear is the Shabaab is planning something big in Kenya. They have supporters here. There's been a number of small attacks since Kenya went into Somalia, so that's - and I live here in Nairobi and things have changed. There's checkpoints on the roads. There's people getting searched - their bags getting searched, patted down to enter a supermarket. The whole place is kind of on this uneasy war footing, which is very unusual for Kenya.
BRUTON: It steered clear of all of these conflicts in Sudan, in Somalia, in Ethiopia before in this region. So that's the big fear. They definitely have support in Kenya, but you never know. They could send somebody back to the United States. There are Americans who have died at suicide bombers for the Shabaab. So that's the big nightmare for U.S. law enforcement, is that a person who left the states, went to Somalia for training, will come back to the U.S. and pull off a big attack.
CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, thanks very much for your time. We appreciate it.
GETTLEMAN: Thank you.
CONAN: Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times East Africa bureau chief, with us today from Nairobi. Our thanks as well to Bronwyn Bruton, deputy director of the Atlantic Center, former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks very much.
Tomorrow, we'll talk about police shootings. How officers are trained to evaluate potentially dangerous situations and what happens after they fire their weapons. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.