As of this week, the United States is directly engaged in Somalia, Ethiopian forces are successfully advancing and Al-Qaeda and Islamic Courts Union (ICU) fighters have been effectively cornered-and yet Somalia still runs a risk of going the way of that most commemorated Black Hawk: down.
The United States and other parties interested in the fate of geopolitically important Somalia must heed the historical and ethno-sociological realities of the country and other lessons of the recent past. In Afghanistan, for example, the cupidity of competing warlords, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the Hamid Karzai government, have led to renewed popularity for the ousted Taliban. That scenario could replay in Somalia, where the internationally feted transitional government-really just a collection of wealth-hoarding warlords-fails to command any meaningful credibility or legitimacy and does not reflect the power dynamics on the ground. And rather than attempting to force Somalia's historically (and currently) disparate clans and regions into some marriage of international convenience, the fragmentation of Somalia-itself, like Iraq, a modern invention which was only held together by brute force-should be seriously contemplated.
The Ethiopian offensive that the United States is now directly reinforcing has, in three short weeks, routed the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had taken control over most of Somalia last year. Thus far the only confirmed U.S. strike was launched Sunday by an Air Force gunship, against what the Pentagon has called "principal al-Qaeda leadership" fleeing with the remnants of the ICU in southern Somalia near the Kenyan border. The military commanders in the area are moving quickly to capitalize on their momentum and finish off the ICU, especially its leadership.
The ICU leadership is now trapped in a triangular area, with: the Kenyan border, which has been sealed by that country's government, on one side; the coast, which is effectively blockaded by two U.S. guided missile cruisers and a U.S. dock landing ship (soon to be joined by the carrier USS Eisenhower), on another; and the Ethiopian military, which is relentlessly advancing down the Juba Valley as well as the coastline from the port of Kismaayo.
Eliminating the terrorists is the first priority and killing or capturing the fugitive Al-Qaeda troika responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 2002 attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya would be a significant milestone. What's more, the fact that Ethiopian troops have killed or captured scores of foreign fighters-including Britons, Canadians, Eritreans, Pakistanis, Sudanese, Yemenis, assorted Arabs and even a Swede-and seized millions of dollars in armaments has demonstrated the considerable threat posed by the ICU radicals' proto-state and belies the claims by Islamists and their apologists that the group was an anodyne indigenous law-and-order movement.
Beyond rolling back the ICU, the international community must do more than support Somalia's so-called Transitional Federal Government-which was formed by exiles meeting under international and regional auspices at the Kenyan lakeside resort town of Naivasha in 2004 and is headed by a longtime Ethiopian client (and, before that, a protégé of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, Abdullahi Yusuf, once the self-declared "president" of the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland. The "government" was-and is-a motley collection of warlords and clan leaders given to living lavishly on handouts from the international community.