Recent reports that the CIA has been supplying Afghan President Hamid Karzai with cash payments since the beginning of the war surprised many, though it shouldn’t have, and caused them to question the efficacy of such payments at a time when both the stability of the security and political regime in Afghanistan have been threatened. Similar payments to U.S.-backed Somali warlords in early 2006 offer a case study of how such monetary compensation might prove to undermine the very powers the U.S. seeks to support.
In July 2006, Ambassador Crumpton, the State Department’s Counterterrorism Coordinator, informed a full Foreign Relations Committee that he was surprised at the Islamic Courts Union’s (ICU) takeover of Mogadishu in June of 2006, an action that effectively defeated the U.S.-designed Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT). Earlier that year, numerous credible reports asserted that the CIA had begun funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars through secular Somali warlords to create the ARPCT in an attempt to “help [the U.S.] root out al-Qaeda and to prevent Somalia becoming a safe haven for terrorists.” Instead, the U.S. payments actually “strengthened the hand of the people whose presence we were worried most about,” i.e. the extremists within the ICU and the broader al-Qaeda leadership.
Given the weakness of Somalia’s transitional government at the time, secular warlords with the military capabilities to fend off an encroaching Islamist insurgency may have seemed like the ideal party to fund, but in reality, they did nothing to legitimize the central government or counter the root causes of instability.
For the historians among us, this might be no surprise given that the Somali conflict has been sustained by a complex sociology and economy of war. That is to say that the Somali conflict has, in a way, been organized by those in competition for resources in conditions of great scarcity. Therefore, providing cash to Somali warlords, simply because they were in opposition to the ICU, did not mean that the cash would go toward fighting extremists; instead, it would be used to maintain the warlords’ power networks (a situation eerily similar to that of Afghanistan).
Effectively, the money removed long-term leverage. This very calculus to use violence and cash payments only cemented Somalia’s clan culture and political system, encouraged Somali stakeholders to benefit only at the equal expense of others and ultimately created new vested interests that became problematic down the road.
The lawlessness and broader corruption created by bags of cash to secular warlords should have been no surprise when thrown into a society built on diffuse authority and that has historically harbored an immense distrust of central security and governmental forces.
The challenge, then, is to acknowledge that reforming civilian alternatives to local governance and justice (like the ICU) in Somalia cannot be dismissed as too costly, too dangerous to study, or not feasible given the long-term costs.
Such historic miscalculations won’t repeat themselves when a civilian authority is answerable to its own people and not bags of cash.