Our Failure in Somalia
It was before "Black Hawk Down," before Somalia became the only country in the world without a government, that I took my first trip there. It changed my life. This was in the mid-1980s, when the United States was underwriting a warlord dictator in support of our Cold War interests, at the clear expense of basic human rights. As a young, wide-eyed activist-in-training, I couldn't accept the idea that my government would use defenseless Somali civilians as pawns on its strategic chessboard -- in a strategy that ultimately produced only state collapse, civil war and famine.
Twenty years later the enemy has changed, but the plot is hauntingly similar. In recent trips to the capital, Mogadishu, I have seen evidence of U.S. support to warlord militia leaders in the name of counterterrorism operations. Since the beginning of the year, pitched battles between U.S.-backed warlords and Islamist militias in Mogadishu have claimed hundreds of lives and displaced thousands of families.
Now "our" warlords -- and by extension our counterterrorism strategy -- have been dealt a crushing defeat by the Islamists, as the latter have consolidated control of Mogadishu. Our short-term interest in locating al-Qaeda suspects has thus been undermined, and the risk of a new safe haven being created for international terrorists has been greatly increased.
The statelessness in Somalia has already been allowing al-Qaeda and other destructive forces to operate there. The president of a neighboring country told me recently that the "governance vacuum is growing larger, with very negative implications for Somalia. It increases the potential for international terrorists to use the structures that are filling the vacuum for safe haven and logistical purposes."
It was partly from Somali soil that al-Qaeda organized and carried out two serious terrorist attacks, in Kenya and Tanzania, against U.S. embassies and a foreign-owned hotel, and narrowly missed bringing down an Israeli passenger jet with two surface-to-air missiles. A plot to crash an airplane into the U.S. Embassy in Kenya was foiled. "Soft" targets are legion throughout East Africa, and intelligence indicates that new attacks are being planned.
Somalia is an al-Qaeda recruiter's dream -- with rampant unemployment, travel restrictions, and no government or foreign investment -- and young Somalis will turn to terrorism for money and, occasionally, because of shared ideology. Schools run by Islamic charities are graduating large numbers of students, many of whom are being taught in Arabic instead of Somali and who have no prospect of meaningful work. Drug dealers and militias looking to restart conflict over economic interests find easy recruits, further destabilizing the area and sowing the seeds of radicalism.
The U.S. counterterrorism approach in Somalia isn't working: The al-Qaeda leaders sought by the United States there remain at large, and the Islamists who protect them are gaining ground against U.S.-backed militias, as this week's events show. With a growing chorus of voices, rightly or wrongly, blaming the United States and the warlords for the fighting, public opinion in Mogadishu has been swinging in favor of the Islamists.
In April the United States tried a different tack, inviting clan and political leaders to Kenya for talks and to enlist their support in dismantling the al-Qaeda safe haven. But fighting broke out as soon as the leaders returned to Mogadishu, making it seem as though one hand of the U.S. government didn't know what the other was doing.
A successful counterterrorism effort would require the United States to pull the political and military threads together into a coherent strategy of broader engagement. U.S. officials and those from other governments throughout the region uniformly have told me that long-term counterterrorism objectives can be achieved only by American investment in the Somali peace process. Yet the State Department has just one full-time political officer working on Somalia -- from neighboring Kenya, and he was just transferred out of the region for dissenting from the policy on proxy warlords. Somalia's ineffectual transitional government remains confined to the shaky central town of Baidoa, where it is still struggling to overcome internal divisions.
A functioning government that could ensure security would be a win-win scenario for Somalis and the United States, enabling the state apparatus to address the criminality and extremism that undermine progress in the country. This would provide a real partner for the war on terrorism in an area that has a track record for exporting trouble.
The continuation of Washington's current approach in Somalia would ensure that U.S. interests and those of other countries in the region remain dangerously vulnerable to terrorist attacks from this collapsed state. Continued fighting between Islamist elements and the U.S.-backed warlord alliance will breed resentment, attract recruits to the extremist cause and provide a training ground for new militants. The United States can no longer afford not to engage more deeply and directly in state reconstruction efforts in Somalia. It is in our national security interest to do so.
The writer is a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group. He worked for the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.