Somalia has been a failed state since 1995, when the United Nations and the United States withdrew their humanitarian mission, leaving the warring clans to sort things out for themselves. For more than a decade, both Democratic and Republican administrations have written off Somalia, raising it only as a warning against U.S. military intervention in Africa. Is it any surprise then that this ungovernable and lawless state became the breeding ground for a conflict that pitted radical Islam against Ethiopia, and ultimately the West?
The overriding objective of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council since it seized Mogadishu six months ago has been to expand into neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti. As the Islamists overran southern Somalia, they indoctrinated school children and pressed them into the militant "al Shebab," whose ruthless leaders were growing increasingly close to al Qaeda. Their end goal was to form a Muslim caliphate in Greater Somalia under whose banner their reach would extend throughout the Horn and into central and southern Africa.
Some claimed that this was a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Others even claimed that it was a proxy war with the United States using Ethiopia as its pawn. To believe this is to ignore the fact that the Islamic Courts' objective was to replace Somalia's secular government in Baidoa so that they could claim to rule all of Somalia. Ethiopia, alone among Somalia's neighbors, responded to the Transitional Federal Government's appeal for help.
While there were competing motives for this conflict, it is certainly not — as the Islamists claim — an instance of Ethiopian aggression with the tacit blessing of the United States. Ethiopia, along with the African Union and the international community, pressed both sides for dialogue. But the Islamic Courts — covertly funded and armed by Eritrea and supporters of a radical Islamic state in the Horn of Africa — declared a jihad on Ethiopia and attacked the Transitional Federal Government. Eritrea hoped to use the conflict in Somalia to destabilize its archenemy Ethiopia, while Islamists hoped to upset the delicate balance between Ethiopia's 75 million evenly divided Orthodox Christian and Muslims.
Some in the West argued that clan rivalry would defeat the Islamic Courts, but each victory brought them more support, both outside and inside Somalia. Others pointed out that the Islamists had imposed order on chaotic Mogadishu, ignoring the fact that they had done so at gun-point. The Arab League had increasingly sided with the Islamists, and many warned that if Ethiopia intervened on behalf of the Transitional Government it would fuel a wider war.
They were all wrong. Ethiopia's and the Somali government's surprisingly easy victories have given Somalia — and the West — a second chance to get things right. We cannot afford to lose this opportunity.
Here is what we need to do: First, international relief agencies should enhance shipments of food into the towns and villages now under the Transitional Government's control. Second, the African Union, with logistic help from the United States and European Union, should immediately deploy peacekeepers to reinforce the government. Third, the region under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development should prepare for a transition to a broad based government that excludes the Islamic militants but includes the moderates from all of Somalia's clans.
A window has been opened, and before the Islamists close it by disrupting efforts to stabilize Mogadishu, we should take the lead in bringing together the international community in a concerted and sustained effort to turn Somalia into a viable state. The United Nations has approved an African peacekeeping mission. Let's get those forces on the ground now. Their presence will dampen the Islamists bravado and allow Ethiopia to withdraw.
Strong U.S. leadership will prevent Somalia from becoming a haven for al Qaeda terrorism in Africa.
Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, retired, just completed 14 months as acting ambassador in Addis Ababa.
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