An interlocutor has taken issue with this post, arguing that there were a clear series of connections between al-Qaeda and the ICU prior to 2006, and thus that the United States was entirely justified in supporting Ethiopia's drive for regional hegemony counterterrorism operation in Somalia. A few words on this are in order...

The phrase "connection" does a lot of work in conversations about terrorism. Hezbollah has connections with Iran, as does Hamas. Various Palestinian political organizations had connections with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Al-Qaeda had connections with the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia. Al-Qaeda may have connections with Iran, and the most fevered neocons still argue that al-Qaeda had connections with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The first problem is that the word "connection" doesn't do justice to the multiplicity of relationships that are being invoked here; advising, sponsoring, undertaking benevolent neutrality toward, and actively conspiring with can all be included under the umbrella of "connection," even though these distinct relationships are quite different in meaning and political import. In this sense, "connection" obscures much more than it illuminates. Indeed, it has always been the point of hacks like Stephen Hayes to conduct this particular kind of operation, in order to produce a cloud of data that seems really, really dangerous, as long as you don't pay too close attention.

The second problem is that noting that two groups are "connected" really doesn't lead to any specific policy recommendations. One response to discovering that the ICU has been working with al-Qaeda is to sponsor an invasion of Somalia; another response is to undertake a political effort to split al-Qaeda from the ICU. The ICU, after all, is a different organization than al-Qaeda, with different interests and priorities. Hezbollah and Hamas are not the same organization; they have different interests, and they each have goals distinct from those of their purported sponsor, Iran. Arguments to the effect that Hamas and Hezbollah will march lock-step to the dictates of Tehran, or that the ICU is a creature of al-Qaeda, are worse than useless; they ignore the fact that organizations share only some interests, and consequently will collaborate under only some circumstances.

Even a casual glance at the history of relations between the United States and its various state and non-state proxies would serve to demonstrate that the proxies have different interests than the U.S., and that they often work at cross-purposes. For example, many advocates of the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia managed to convince themselves that Ethiopia was interested in the same thing we were. It turns out not so much; Ethiopia wanted to destroy nascent Somali state institutions, didn't overly concern itself about how that was to be done, and didn't care at all about al-Qaeda. The core of the principal-agent problem is that actors with different interests tend to act differently. While neoconservatives do their best to hide this fact by imagining a vast, nebulous cloud of Islamo-fascism, it's as true of terrorist organizations and "rogue" states as it is of the U.S. and its allies.

The strategic idiocy of the "connection" argument only complements its analytical flaws. Had Britain and France adopted this logic during World War II, they would have declared war on Spain and the Soviet Union shortly after declaring war on Germany, simply because the former had connections with the latter. Uniting one's enemies into a seamless front has the virtue of creating a morally simple world, but the drawback of, well, uniting one's enemies into a seamless front.

--Robert Farley