Getting It Wrong In Somalia, Again
Getting It Wrong In Somalia, Again
Somalia, Somaliland and the Explosive Port Deal
Somalia, Somaliland and the Explosive Port Deal
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Getting It Wrong In Somalia, Again

Already notorious as the world's only state without a functioning government, Somalia may be about to deteriorate even further. The country is rapidly sliding back toward war. As an Islamist militia, the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, consolidates control over large swathes of southern Somalia, neighboring Ethiopia has sent thousands of troops over the border, and both sides are preparing for a showdown. A return to war could bring about the same horrific famine conditions that precipitated a US military intervention 14 years ago, and damage rather than advance US counter terrorism objectives in a vulnerable region.

Unfortunately for Somalis, the United States and other members of the UN Security Council are taking actions that make war more likely, not less. The State Department wants to loosen a UN arms embargo and allow deployment of a regional peacekeeping force, a move that will be viewed as an act of war by the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, or CSIC. The Bush administration must resist the urge to tackle political problems with military solutions, roll up its diplomatic sleeves, and engage in a multilateral effort to negotiate an agreement between the Ethiopian-backed Somali transitional government and the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, the de facto authority in much of southern Somalia.

Terrorists, including those associated with Al Qaeda, have preyed on the lack of a functioning central government to smuggle weapons through Somalia's porous borders, unguarded ports, and uncontrolled airstrips. Somalia has consequently been a terrorist staging ground and a haven for the perpetrators of Al Qaeda bombings against the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the bombing of a beachfront hotel in Kenya, and a failed attempt to bring down an Israeli passenger aircraft off the Kenya coast. Al Qaeda's activities in Somalia were aided, abetted, and protected by elements of the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, and the Courts' rise to power poses a security threat to the region.

The US policy response, understandable at first glance, has been to focus overwhelmingly on capturing terrorists, neglecting in the process Somalian appeals for assistance in building a functioning state. But state building and counter-terrorism are not mutually exclusive, and the US approach of supporting warlords that served its interests has been shortsighted.

This past spring, pitched battles between the CIA's warlord proxies and militias loyal to the militia killed hundreds of Somali civilians in the capital, Mogadishu, and injured or displaced thousands more. Ill-advised financial support to some of the predator warlords who have caused Somalia's anarchy - committing crimes from extortion to rape - only increased the popularity of the council as it became synonymous with law and order.

The rise of the militia corresponds with the political implosion of an internationally backed transitional government located in the town of Baidoa. Government officials have defected en masse, leaving behind a vulnerable institution that lacks the military muscle to face the CSIC alone. Ethiopia, the Bush administration's chief counter-terrorism ally in the region, has responded by deploying forces to protect what is left of the transitional government. Ethiopia does not like the kind of Islam the Council is promoting, and fears a strong Council could destabilize parts of Ethiopia.

As battle looms, the hyenas are closing in. A UN investigation presented to the Security Council this month suggested that no fewer than nine outside actors - including Ethiopia and its enemy Eritrea - are funneling weapons to either the transitional government or the militia. By doing so, they are breaking the 14-year UN arms embargo and priming the country for war.

While many Somalis don't want their personal freedoms restricted and reject the Islamist extremism preached by the militia, they are even more opposed to foreign intervention. The militia has painted its jihad in nationalist colors, and this has led to an outpouring of popular support.

UN investigators recommended strengthening the arms embargo and freezing the assets of all Somali-owned and operated businesses linked to arms trade. It also warned that the entire region could explode into conflict unless the international community makes diplomatic efforts to contain the spillover.

Rather than heed this advice, the United States is pushing for just the opposite by tabling a resolution in the UN Security Council to partially lift the arms embargo to allow a regional peacekeeping mission to protect the government in Baidoa. In effect, this would bring the UN into the coming conflict on the side of Ethiopia and give a green light to Ethiopia's deployment in Somalia.

The United States should focus on averting a war, not triggering one. Before endorsing a military solution, the United States should work multilaterally to apply targeted sanctions to parties that violate the arms embargo and economic pressure to the council's business partners.

It should also invest in a peace process, which means getting involved in promoting a power-sharing deal between the weak transitional government and the council. Rebuilding a government in Somalia is the only viable way to combat the terrorist threat and prevent violent Islamist extremism from expanding. Delicate diplomacy is required to reconstitute this transitional authority as a government of national unity. Only then will the United States help create an effective counterbalance to the Islamists and an eventual partner in the international struggle against terrorism.


Former Program Co-Director, Africa
Former Research and Advocacy Manager

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.