By John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen
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.
Sign up for: Globe Headlines e-mail | Breaking News Alerts 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.
U.S. Peacekeeping Plan for Somalia Criticized
The United States has finalized a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would authorize a force of East African peacekeepers to intervene in Somalia to prevent the overthrow of the country's struggling government at the hands of Islamic militias. But some European diplomats and other critics expressed concern that the initiative could trigger a wider war in the region.
The U.S. proposal comes as an alliance of militias, known as the Conservative Council of Islamic Courts, is extending its military and political control over Somalia and threatening the country's weak interim government. Ethiopia has sent thousands of troops to help prop up the government while its rival, Eritrea, has deployed thousands of troops to fight alongside the militias, according to a recent U.N. report.
The U.S. text, which is backed by China, Russia and key African states, would permit an East African protection force to provide security for Somalia's transitional federal government, based in Baidoa. It would partly lift a 14-year arms embargo so East African troops could train a Somali security force and import weapons to fulfill their mandate. And it would also commit the Security Council to "consider taking measures" against states that try to "overthrow" the interim government, threaten regional stability or "seek to prevent or block" peace talks.
An alliance of seven East African governments, known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, first proposed such a regional force to protect Somalia's interim government more than 1 1/2 years ago, before the Islamic militias emerged as a major power. The troops probably would be drawn primarily from Uganda, council diplomats said, but Ethiopia and Kenya have also expressed an interest in participating.
The African Union subsequently backed the proposal, but it then languished at the United Nations.
The case for an intervention force became more urgent this past summer, after the militias seized control of Mogadishu, Somalia's capital, from a loose alliance of Somali warlords. U.S. and African diplomats, along with others at the United Nations, are worried that the militias are poised to drive out the government. They have encouraged the interim government and the Islamic Courts Union to negotiate a political settlement to end the fighting.
European and U.N. officials have privately voiced concern that the establishment of the force, which the militias oppose, could provoke a new military offensive against the government. They have also expressed fears that the conflict could reignite fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which ended their border war in 2000.
"We need to . . . encourage the Somali parties to continue the dialogue," said U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. "What is also important is we need to make sure that neighboring countries do not get drawn in, because there is a tendency for some of the neighboring countries to get drawn in."
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, issued a warning Monday that the U.S. resolution "could trigger all-out war in Somalia" and destabilize the Horn of Africa.
"You don't win in Somalia by picking one side and support it and funneling arms to it," said Nick Grono, an expert on Africa at the organization. He said the Islamic militias have warned that they would respond to foreign intervention with the declaration of a holy war. "That is a recipe for jihad," he said.
France and other European governments have asked the United States to consider amendments designed to assure the Islamic militias that they are not taking sides in the war. For instance, they are calling for the exclusion of the countries bordering Somalia -- Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya -- from participating in the force.
A U.S. spokesman said the United States probably will present its draft resolution to the 15-nation council on Wednesday. Other council diplomats suggested that the U.N. dispute may delay that.
John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the United States is "trying to move as fast as we can" to call for a vote on the resolution. But he said he is still "seeking agreement from a number of countries on some critical points."
"We need to do something as opposed to just watching the situation deteriorate," he added. "But we want to get it right."
Somalia needs troops - US
Washington - The United States said on Tuesday that a regional peacekeeping force was needed to protect Somalia's weak transitional government from the powerful Islamist movement controlling the capital.
One day before the United Nations security council was expected to debate the proposed peacekeepers, the US state department said the force was needed to help restore dialogue between the interim government, the Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs), and the Islamic movement, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).
A statement from the state department's office said: "This force will deter further aggression against the TFIs; create the required space for dialogue; and stabilise the situation."
Islamists 'to invite foreign fighters'
It said: "The sole purpose of this deployment would be to stabilise the security situation by providing protection and training for the TFIs, not to engage in offensive actions against the UIC."
The department also said the two sides should be ready, as part of a longer-term solution, to reach a "security protocol, including a verifiable cease-fire and plans for military disengagement, once dialogue resumes".
The US statement came amid rising tensions in Somalia as Islamists warned that they would invite foreign fighters to join their war if the UN authorised peacekeepers.
But, the embattled Somali government said failure by the UN to adopt the resolution could lead to a "doomsday scenario" leading to all-out war.
The state department said Washington would work to prevent the war from escalating into a broader conflict in the Horn of Africa.
Deployment of troops 'way to go'
It said: "The US will remain actively engaged in preventing the continued escalation of tensions inside Somalia, which could spark wider regional conflict in the Horn of Africa if left unchecked.
"The deployment of a regional force is key in ensuring that such a scenario does not transpire."
According to diplomats, Washington intended to introduce a resolution at the security council on Wednesday that would ease an arms embargo to allow plans for a regional east African peacekeeping force to deploy to Somalia.
The proposed 8 000-strong peacekeeping mission would be manned by troops from the east African regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD).
Somalia had been without a functioning central authority since 1991 and the two-year-old transitional government was the latest in more than a dozen international efforts to restore stability.
The Islamists seized Mogadishu in June after months of fighting and later grabbed most of southern and central Somalia, where they had imposed strict Sharia law.