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Somalia’s Perpetual War

Author: Stephanie Hanson
May 9, 2008

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Pirates hijacked a record number of ships off the Somali coast this year, fighting in Mogadishu has driven hundreds of thousands from the city, and the aid workers that supply critical food and medical supplies to displaced Somalis are now targeted by Islamic insurgents (TIME). Yet perhaps the most telling indicator of Somalia’s deepening crisis is this: Not only has the country’s weak transitional government failed to protect civilians, according to a new report from Amnesty International, it routinely targets them (PDF).

Somalia’s transitional federal government has tried to legitimize its hold over the country since December 2006, when Ethiopian troops invaded to oust the Islamic Courts Union, a fundamentalist militia. Some eighteen months later, the Ethiopian troops remain, the Islamist insurgency has intensified, and moderate elements of the Islamists that split from the courts are refusing to negotiate with the transitional government. As this Backgrounder describes, the transitional government is an amalgam of warlords vying for power. The United States has backed it in the hopes of eliminating the country’s Islamic extremists, but many experts say that strategy has led to further radicalization.

The U.S. strategy toward Somalia is three-pronged: to eliminate the terrorist threat, to promote political stability, and to address the humanitarian crisis. Testifying before a Senate subcommittee in March, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer said “As we encourage political dialogue, we will continue to seek to isolate those who, out of extremism, refuse that dialogue and insist on violence.” Critics of that strategy suggest that U.S. counterterrorism objectives undermine efforts at political reconciliation. The radical Islamist group al-Shabaab tells Newsweek International its recent addition to the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist groups will help it attract young recruits. A February 2008 report from the Government Accountability Office found U.S. stated strategy for Somalia incomplete (PDF) and said the government failed to incorporate the activities of the Defense Department.

At an April UN Security Council meeting on Somalia, the political process was little discussed. Instead, debate centered on whether to send more international forces to bolster the small contingent of AU peacekeepers that has already been deployed. Yet experts agree that unless a political agreement is reached among the transitional government, the Islamist insurgents, and the opposition, Somalia will spiral deeper into civil war. More peacekeeping forces “would end up as cannon fodder for the competing armed groups,” writes Africa expert John Prendergast in an April 2008 report. He recommends jumpstarting a peace process in tandem with an aggressive humanitarian response.

Uniting the international community around such a process looks to be a daunting task. Some analysts suggest that there are not enough incentives for the relevant players to engage in such talks. “No one is prepared to make the sacrifices necessary,” says CFR Adjunct Senior Fellow Princeton Lyman. The United States continues to launch air strikes targeting terrorists in Somalia. Ethiopia may prefer a divided Somalia to one ruled by an Islamic regime. Some Somali leaders are “comfortable” perpetuating war for personal gain (Reuters), says the UN envoy to Somalia charged with launching peace talks. Meanwhile, as food prices skyrocket and drought within Somalia deepens, the number of Somalis in need of humanitarian assistance has jumped to 2.6 million, an increase of more than 40 percent since January.

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