For the past sixteen years, Somalia has been widely acknowledged—and ignored—as a failed state. Now, the world is finally paying attention to the Horn of Africa. Somalia is a “feral nation,” (LAT) writes former CIA Case Officer Garrett Jones; the “hot new front in the war on terrorism,” according to the Washington Post. Observers warn the battle between Somalia’s Islamic Courts and Ethiopian troops threatens to pull in neighboring countries and Muslim extremists. Ethiopia’s superior military, which enjoys the tacit support of Washington, has forced the Islamists to withdraw from Mogadishu, but analysts are concerned about the ensuing power vacuum (CSMonitor). Some anticipate these radicals will reemerge and wage guerrilla war (LAT), not unlike what the United States faces in Iraq. Others anticipate the return of the warlords who controlled Mogadishu before the rise of the Islamic Courts.
Though publicly it has pushed for the Islamists to return to the negotiating table, the United States has signaled it backs Ethiopia’s offensive in Somalia (NYT). Since gaining control of Mogadishu in May, the Islamic Courts had consolidated power through much of Somalia until their swift rout by Ethiopia this week. Washington fears the country could emerge as a terrorist haven for Islamists with al-Qaeda ties (Reuters).
This fear dictates U.S. policy and undermines efforts to deescalate the crisis, writes Somalia expert Matt Bryden. Earlier this year, the United States supported Somali warlords calling themselves an “anti-terror” coalition, a policy widely criticized for facilitating the rise of the Islamic Courts. Most recently, a U.S.-backed Security Council Resolution, passed at the beginning of December, called for a regional peacekeeping force to protect the transitional government. The resolution was meant to avert war, but instead precipitated it.
Now, the policy options for the United States look bleak. After the ill-fated 1993 U.S. intervention in Somalia—documented in the book and film Black Hawk Down—Washington is loath to take military action, even in the service of nation building. “None of the options for serious nation building in xenophobic, tribal Somalia are politically, financially or morally palatable,” says a Los Angeles Times editorial.
Many experts think that collaborating with other countries in the region to broker peace talks between the Islamists and the transitional government holds the only possibility for stabilizing Somalia. Bryden writes in Kenya’s The Nation, “A lasting peace can only be achieved at the negotiating table, and there is no point in waiting until the guns fall silent to begin preparing.”
Yet multilateralism holds its own drawbacks. A U.S. initiative to support peace in Somalia, the International Somalia Contact Group, has been crippled by the exclusion of key parties such as Kenya, the Arab League, and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, a regional body. Rifts between the United States and Europe on how to address the problem have also hindered efforts toward peace talks (Times of London). European diplomats support engaging with the Islamists leaders, a move the United States opposes. And some countries are more interested in fanning the flames of conflict than quelling them: Ethiopia and Eritrea seek to use Somalia as a proxy battleground, writes Terrence Lyons in a Council Special Report.
Other U.S. options on the table include strengthening the arms embargo against Somalia, freezing the assets of all Somali-owned and operated businesses, and pushing for the withdrawal of all foreign forces. But ultimately, stability in Somalia can only be achieved by Somalis (PDF), according to congressional testimony by the Congressional Research Service’s Ted Dagne. The breakaway region of Somaliland seems to support this notion. After declaring independence in 1991, Somaliland—which remains unrecognized internationally—has achieved stability and economic growth with virtually no external help. Some, including Loyola University’s Peter J. Schraeger, argue that the United States should recognize Somaliland’s independence as a “shining example” of how Islam and democracy “are not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually reinforcing.”