June 1, 2006  

Somalia, Day Two

If you had any doubts that U.S. strategy for the Middle East and the war on terror hadn’t found a coherent theme, yesterday’s "fall of Mogadishu" – an Islamic group, or several of them, ousted U.S.-backed "warlords" from the alleged capital of Somalia – set off a tidal wave of contradictory responses in Washington.

In today’s Washington Post, Karen DeYoung reports that the administration was immediately ready to "reach out" to the victorious Somali militia, the Islamic Courts Union, on the theory that there was "room for discussion with any viable political actor in Somalia," according to the unidentified "senior government official" quoted in the piece. "The situation is still in flux, but in terms of our strategic objectives, we’ve got to deal with the political realities on the ground."

President Bush, vacationing at his Crawford ranch, said that his "first concern, of course, would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an al-Qaeda safe haven, that it doesn’t become a place from which terrorists can plot and plan." But DeYoung’s article went on to suggest that an official peace offering would be forthcoming later in the week. Hey, we’re trying it in Iran, why not in Somalia?

Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, those most intimately involved with prosecuting the global campaign against Islamic terrorists were suggesting that the struggle for power in Somalia was far from over. The group funded and backed by U.S. intelligence operatives is rallying at the port of Baidoa, about 150 miles southwest of Mogadishu – also the home of the remaining UN mission and the powerless "transitional government" of Somalia. The country has essentially been in a dozen-year civil war, and no faction or group or alliance of "warlords" has been able to forge a decisive victory; "our" warlords, the "secular" warlords – wonderfully named the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism – have controlled Mogadishu during most of this period, but their grasp has been very tenuous. "Control" of Mogadishu often doesn’t mean more than occupying the infamous K4 intersection.

The Somalis themselves don’t seem any more ready to conclude a lasting peace than the agencies of the U.S. government. Sheik Sharif Ahmed Siyar, chief cleric of the Islamic Courts Union as well as its political head, declared that "until we get an Islamic state, we will continue the Islamic struggle." This maximalist claim and threat to impose sharia law reportedly provoked thousands of people in Mogadishu to take to the streets in protest, and traditional clan leaders – probably sensing a threat to their own power – essentially told Ahmed to back off.

In sum, the fighting is likely to continue until one side wins – in a victory that could well be very bloody and cruel and probably take a long time. The Islamic Courts Union can depend upon outside funding and support; despite the olive branches and the defeat in Mogadishu, it does not seem likely that the United States will abandon its proxies in Somalia. The UN and the transitional government in Baidoa appear to be marginal players. Altogether, all the ingredients for continued struggle and instability in a place that, Black Hawk Down memories notwithstanding, the United States has a strategic interest.