There’s a famous definition of insanity: repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting a different outcome.  That’s Somalia policy these days.

The African Union’s (AU) heads of state met last week last week in Kampala, where 76 people died in Somalia-linked bombings on July 11.  They endorsed the policy that has failed for years, increasing the scale by adding 2000 or maybe 4000 troops.  If you believe that only Americans think that more is always better, think again. The US did its part by agreeing to put up more money.

There was one holdout.  Eritrea, represented by its foreign minister and returning to international meetings after its self-imposed boycott, opposed sending more troops.  It also opposed the AU decision to let the troops be more aggressive.  Until now, they have been limited to being ‘peace keepers’, though there is no peace to keep.  The AU wanted them to be ‘peace makers’.  The difference is that peace makers can shoot first but peace keepers have to be shot at first. The UN agreed with Eritrea and persuaded the AU to withhold the ’shoot first’ authorization.

It’s ironic that Eritrea, which has refused to talk to its own enemies for years, is the one pushing for dialogue.  Eritrea has rejected talk with Ethiopia for the past seven years, refused until recently to talk to Djibouti after starting a border clash, won’t accept the credentials of the US ambasssador, etc.

The US tried to use force in Somalia in the 1990s and ended up with ‘Blackhawk Down”.  UN blue helmets from Pakistan suffered even more deaths that same year.  Ethiopia invaded in 2006 and withdrew a few years later after achieving little to show but casualties. Now it sends in troops for short incursions with limited goals.  If the AU increase materializes, it will have 8000 or more troops in Somalia — the main effect of which will be to increase the casualties among both the troops and Somali civilians.  Soldiers coming back in body bags are starting to chill public support in their home countries.

An alternative idea known as ‘constructive disengagement’ is becoming fashionable, an impressive label for a flimsy concept.  If  ’disengagement’ means ending the current failed policy, it could have merit.  As for ‘constructive’…well, it’s not clear what that means in practice.   Humanitarian aid would continue and humanitarian aid workers protected.  So far, so good, though that’s no change.

What would be new is the withdrawal of all foreign troops, though occasional interventions  (e.g. drone attacks or other raids) are not ruled out.  A big change would be opening a dialogue with Al Shabaab and other Islamists, something that Eritrea also urges. Eritrea is a reformed (apparently) supporter of some Islamists, with whom it has presumably been talking all along, though probably not about ending the fighting.  What these proposed new ‘constructive’ conversations might be about isn’t clear.

How dialogue differs from simply capitulating to the Islamists also isn’t clear. The Islamists would have even less incentive to relax their grip. On the other hand, fighting the Islamists obviously isn’t working.  The new theory is that Al Shabaab, the dominant Islamist group, is so riven with factions and rivalries that only the presence of foreign fighters…Ethiopians, AU troops, raids by Americans drones and missiles…has kept them united.  Without a common enemy, Al Shabaab would disintegrate into squabbling rivals, or weakened enough for local warlords to chip away at their turf.

It’s possible that Al Shabaab will not survive, with or without ‘constructive disengagement’.  Power struggles among the Islamists are no secret. Al Shabaab is widely hated for banning the World Cup on television, hacking off arms and legs of accused thieves, stoning rape victims for the crime of adultery and other un-Somali but fundamentalist excesses.  Traditional  Somali Islam is not Al Qaeda Islam. Also, Al Shabaab now hosts hundreds of foreign jihadi Islamists, making them vulnerable to Somali antagonism toward outsiders meddling in local disputes.

But ‘constructive disengagement’ confuses the possible collapse of Al Shabaab with the restoration of civil order.  For most of the past nineteen years there was no Al Shabaab and no order.  Instead, there was rule by local strongmen, gangsters and extortionists, some along clan lines, some not. But in some local areas traditional leaders and institutions maintained surprisingly effective rule. locally.

There was no ambition to create a national government until the short-lived Islamic Courts in 2006, who brought welcome civil order before they took fundamentalism too far for most Somalis, and absurdly threatened to take the Ogaden from Ethiopia. When Ethiopia invaded, it has now been forgotten, many Somalis greeted them with enthusiasm for ridding Mogadishu of the tyrannical clerics. Few defended the Islamic Courts. If only Ethiopia had left at the end of the week, instead of staying for more than two years….

‘Normal’ countries can’t seem to tolerate anything but a recognizable state, even one like North Korea. Anything else is a ‘failed state’.  The possibility that Somalia might be better off, at least for now, without a central government, with local authority for now in the hands of trusted local leaders and familiar institutional forms, is beyond their imagining.

A few analysts have suggested that this might be more effective than supporting the illusory Transitional Federal Government on one hand, or abandoning Somalia to either Al Shabaab or the vacuum of its collapse on the other.  This approach is also short on specifics, but at least it promises something to build on, which is better than than waiting for Al Shabaab to collapse and praying that what follows isn’t even worse.

So…what to do about Somalia?  African heads of state are clueless.  Europe and the US are equally clueless.  Too many people without a grasp of the reality of Somalia are writing papers for each other. In the meantime, the danger appears to be spreading.  The bombs in Uganda may not be the last.  American and other nations’ Somali immigrants have already been recruited by the Islamists.  Doing nothing is not an option.