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A stable Somalia is good for the region

Michael Ranneberger, US Ambassador to Kenya speaks to Fred Oluoch on the Somali crisis.

Other than the stated purpose of supporting the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and capturing the three Al Qaeda suspects, does the US have any other reason for going into Somalia?

The US objective in Somalia is twofold. We want to ensure security on the ground and that includes trying to interdict these foreign terrorist connected with Al-Qaeda that have been operating in Somalia. Second, we want to promote stability in Somalia and the only way you can do that is through having a broad-based government. We have been working to achieve that.

By backing the Ethiopian invasion, don’t you think the US is creating instability, given that TFG will be seen as a foreign-backed government that does not enjoy wide support on the ground?

I think that is a misperception. We need to give it sometime; of course, you are not going to get a broad-based dialogue and broad-based government overnight. It is going to take weeks or months to achieve. So, a lot of people are making the instant judgment that there is a problem with the TFG and I think that is a mistake.

A lot of people also say that the TFG does not have legitimacy, but that is not true either. Remember the TFG was restricted to Baidoa and a small area around Baidoa because of the Union of Islamic Courts. Now that TFG is gaining control of the whole country, they have to be given time to prove that they are capable of governing. And I think as they do that, they will gain broad popular support.

Remember, the reason the Islamic Courts had broad support is not because people believed in their radical Islamic ideology, it was because people wanted to see law and order.

And to the extent that the TFG can establish peace, law and order, I think they will be supported by the Somali people as well.

How long do you think this will take?

Well, it will take a while. It would be a mistake to put an artificial time line and say that it will take four months or six months. But what we are looking for is an immediate indication that the TFG is reaching out to all segments of Somali society, all the clans and sub-clans, to try build a broad-based governance structure.

We are already seeing some indication that they are doing that, but not as much as we would like to. Remember, TFG is also going to need foreign support in order to help govern, build institutions and get the basic services on track — that is going to take a while as well.

We have announced $40 million to support that effort, but it is going to take time to start dispensing that money. I think it is going to take months, and it is important to reserve judgment until the process finally works.

Don’t you think continued Ethiopian presence in Ethiopia could promote an insurgency as in Iraq?

No, I don’t think there is any comparison with Iraq. Obviously, it is a very different situation. What I do think is that it will be important to enable the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces quickly, and the way to do that is to get African forces in there, because everybody realises that the TFG cannot provide for its own security yet. We have to train the TFG forces so that they have a professional military and police.

In the meantime, Somalia will need stabilisation forces. Uganda has promised at least 1,500 troops, hopefully to be deployed this month, but that is not sufficient. There are efforts to get other African countries to provide troops. Kenya has sent emissaries to various countries, the African Union is working on this, so we hope there will be sufficient forces.

Can you confirm reports that Ethiopia has started pulling out in phases even before the African forces arrive? What is the US position on this development?

It is logical that Ethiopia might withdraw some of its forces because it has a lot of troops there. But I don’t think you will see Ethiopia withdrawing all its forces from Somalia; what you are likely to see is an orderly withdrawal as the African forces come in. The Ethiopians do not want to leave a power vacuum in Somalia.

Do you think the Somalia situation will require only a handful of peacekeepers operating on a short timetable to pacify the troubled country?

I don’t think African forces can stabilise the country, I think stabilisation has to come from within through the actions the Somalis themselves are going to take. The most important of those is dialogue among all sectors of Somali society so that TFG can be truly broad-based, that is the only way to get long-term stability.

The TFG has to be seen as legitimate, it has to maintain law and order. The African forces are there only in a supporting role and they will not be able to do anything, unless the Somali people themselves are doing what they need to do.

And part of that will be to control the warlords to ensure that there is no return to the situation that led to the intervention of the Islamic Courts.

Isn’t the citing of fighting terrorism as justification for US intervention in various situations getting overused?

I don’t think so, because one has to look at the facts here. Some people would argue, echoing the disinformation coming from the Islamic Courts, that the terrorism issue has been exaggerated. The fact is that Al-Qaeda has been operating in Somalia for some time, after taking advantage of the vacuum, and has used the country as a base of operations and a safe haven.

We know that, three of the terrorists involved in the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania have been taking refuge in Somalia. When the Islamic Courts came in, Al-Qaeda saw it as an opportunity to expand its activities and influence. And what we saw during the last days of the Courts is that Al-Qaeda was steadily expanding its influence within the Courts.

The Islamic Courts many not have been taken over by Al-Qaeda, but what has been documented by the Ethiopians is that some of the people killed in the fighting were foreign jihadists, whom we know have a direct connection with al-Qaeda.

Now, we are trying to stop these people and it is a legitimate thing to do; it is something that is supported by TFG, and by the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya.

Don’t you think the Somalia situation might attract people with an axe to grind with the US, whether real or imagined?

Well, I think the situation is different from that of Iraq. You have a legitimate Somali government, and you have Somali people wanting to see law and order. I don’t think the Somali people want to see their country being used by foreign terrorists who will destabilise it and cause problems. I think once they know the facts, the Somali people will support this effort to fight terrorism and they will support the TFG. It would be very difficult, then, for Al-Qaeda to exploit that because they work best where there is a vacuum and where there are divisions.

Is it true that the US is the main backer of the TFG and the sources of its newfound strength?

We are fully behind the TFG, and we have announced a $40 million package of support for the TFG and civil society in Somalia. We are looking at ways to identify more money, so we have indicated our support in very specific ways and we are committed to remaining in Somalia in support of TFG for the long term, because we understand the importance of building stability in that strategic country.

Do you foresee the TFG becoming a real government that is credible, stable and accepted by all?

The odds are that it will. The Somali people saw the potential for law and order when the Islamic Courts took over. But then they saw the Islamic Courts going in a very radical direction, shutting down television and movie houses and the rest. I think we will see a government that responds to the needs of the people in terms of their beliefs, and social values, but also a government that tries to establish law and order.

What you will see is increasing support from the international community in coming weeks. You will see more support coming from the EU and other countries. As the TFG gets that support, the Somalis will be able to get their children back to school, their health clinics functioning, police deployed and all essential services up and running. If that happens, it will help build support among the people.

The mandate of the TFG will end in 2008 and it is yet to pacify Somali society and put structures in place for the election of a popular government. Do you see the TFG achieving these goals within the remaining time?

I think it can happen. If the international community moves quickly to support the TFG, we could see significant results within the next three to six months. We are committed to ensuring that the agreement holds, that there is a transition and a constitutional referendum is held. We have said repeatedly that the Transition Federal Charter needs to be respected.

How do see the viability of the peacekeeping operation in the long run?

We would like to stay there as briefly as possible. We have not set a time frame to it, but we do not see the African forces staying there for a long period. We think that the TFG will be able to put up a police force fairly quickly, and one of the priorities is to work with them and set up a national army. We believe that the people will rally behind TFG and within six months, we are likely to see a much more stable Somalia, which will then enable the African forces to leave.

How much influence does the US have in the assembling of the African peacekeeping force?

We have been approaching a number of African countries on our own to encourage them to contribute. But the leadership on this is coming from both Kenya, as chair of Igad, and the African Union. We are supporting them and we have offered to provide some funding for the deployment of these forces

With the warlords back in Mogadishu, how long does the US expect them to behave before they turn on each other? Is your government prepared for that kind of eventuality?

Well, the warlords posed a major challenge for the process. They had their own forces and they had a lot of influence and some of them had a lot of economic power, so it is a difficult problem to deal with. But, we have made it clear that the TFG must deal with it.

President Abdullahi Yusuf has met with the warlords and we understand that they have agreed to disarm. But it is not going to be an easy process. Our view is that the warlords cannot return to their old ways. Some of them are Members of Parliament, they have a legitimate role to play, but beyond that, there is no role in Somalia now for individual militias and the way the warlords behaved in the past.

So, we are supporting the TFG on that and the Ethiopians have also told us that they don’t want to see the return of the warlords. With that kind of support, the warlords will not be able to return to the status quo.

Is the Al-Qaeda threat in East Africa real, or just an excuse to expand Washington’s influence and probably to scare Kenya into enacting the controversial Anti-Terrorism Bill?

It is real, more real than we earlier thought. We have been saying that there is an Al-Qaeda cell here for a long time, but the information that is now coming out, now that the Islamic Courts have been thrown out, is alarming in terms of what was going on.

There is no doubt that Al-Qaeda has been in East Africa before the Islamic Courts came to power, that they increased their level of activity while the Islamic Courts were there and were intending to continue increasing their activities.

Recently, you warned that Al-Qaeda was planning to attack Kenyans. Do you think Al-Qaeda is after Kenya or simply after US interests in Kenya?

Al-Qaeda would target us, but also target Kenya in its own right not just because Kenya is associated with us, but because Kenya is the most stable country in the region and was behind the Sudan and Somalia peace process.

The support Kenya has shown for the TFG to stabilise Somalia and the co-operation Kenya has been providing in general in the global war against terrorism — all these are reasons why al-Qaeda would like to destabilise and hurt Kenya.

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