By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 18, 2006
Six months ago, the Bush administration launched a new policy in war-torn Somalia, putting the State Department in charge after secret CIA efforts failed to prevent Islamic fundamentalists from seizing power in Mogadishu. It hoped that diplomacy would draw the Islamists into partnership with more palatable, U.S.-backed Somali leaders.
Today, that goal seems more distant than ever. Since coming to power in June, the Islamists have expanded their hold on the south. A largely powerless, U.S.-backed rump government remains divided and isolated in the southern town of Baidoa. U.S.-sponsored talks, and a separate Arab League effort, seem to be going nowhere.
Al-Qaeda, long hovering in the shadows, has established itself as a presence in the Somali capital, say U.S. officials, who see a growing risk that Somalia will become a new haven for terrorists to launch attacks beyond its borders.
Meanwhile, a major war -- promoted and greeted approvingly by Osama bin Laden -- looms between Somalia and Ethiopia, threatening a regional conflagration likely to draw more foreign extremists into the Horn of Africa.
Among administration officials, Congress, U.S. allies and other interested and fearful parties, there is a rising sense that Somalia is spinning rapidly out of control. But even as events there have focused Washington's attention, they have led to a wave of finger-pointing and a feeling that there are few good ideas and little time for turning the situation around.
A wide range of interviews and commentary last week provided assessments that differed only in their degree of bleakness and apportionment of blame.
"The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by . . . East Africa al-Qaeda cell individuals," Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Jendayi Frazer said of Mogadishu's new rulers.
Early hopes of a power-sharing deal with secular politicians have dissipated as Courts Chairman Hassan Dahir Aweys -- put on the U.S. terrorist list in 2001 as the head of a militant group accused of having links to al-Qaeda in the 1990s -- and Aden Ayrow, who heads the Courts' military arm, have increased their power.
Moderates remain within the Courts, a coalition of local Islamist groups and militias that drove CIA-supported warlords out of Mogadishu, Frazer said. But "they are not emerging as they could get their heads taken off, literally."
The Islamists have ignored U.S. insistence that they turn over three al-Qaeda operatives -- the core of what is called the East African cell -- who the administration says took refuge in Somalia after terrorist attacks in Africa, including the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In a taped statement released in July, bin Laden called on Somalis to begin preparing for regional war. He recalled the 1994 withdrawal of U.S. military forces after a warlord attack killed 18 U.S. troops, saying, "This time, victory will be far easier."
U.S. intelligence officials described the statement at the time as part of bin Laden's failing claim to the leadership of a worldwide Islamic movement, despite the dispersion of the al-Qaeda network by the U.S. terrorism fight. Now they are not so certain.
Still, the intelligence community is not prepared to fully endorse Frazer's conclusions about the level of al-Qaeda's control of the Courts. "I don't think there are hard and fast views," John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, told Washington Post editors and reporters Thursday. Somalia "has come back on the radar screen only fairly recently," and the question is whether the Islamist government "is the next Taliban," he said. "I don't think I've seen a good answer."
But a U.S. counterterrorism official, while reluctant to dispute Negroponte's assessment, cited intelligence reporting that "people with links to al-Qaeda are assisting with training and weapons. It goes beyond just urging jihadists to take up arms."
"If the situation heats up," said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue on the record, "it could draw in more jihadists from abroad." Al-Qaeda, he said, "has a limited safe haven in Somalia, but given the current situation there's a concern that it could grow, including that it could be used as a springboard for launching terrorist operations outside Somalia."
"There are not a lot of good options right now," he said.
Events in Somalia could provide an immediate spark for a wider war in the Horn of Africa; the roots of such a conflict would be tangled in complicated, long-standing regional animosities. The United Nations reported last month that Ethiopia has sent thousands of troops to help prop up the two-year-old transitional government in Baidoa. The same report said Eritrea, whose 1970s war with Ethiopia is still smoldering over an unsettled border dispute, has deployed thousands of troops to train and fight alongside the Islamists. Arab neighbors and sympathizers are also reportedly providing funds.
Ethiopia, a Christian-dominated nation, also fought a war with Somalia in the 1970s, over the ethnic Somali and largely Muslim Ethiopian province of Ogaden.
Last week, Somali Islamists threatened a "major attack" if the Ethiopians do not withdraw by Tuesday. Ethiopia has said, in essence, bring it on.
Somalia descended into chaos after U.S. and U.N. troops withdrew in 1994, with warring clans competing for power and the rest of the world turning away. When the Islamist push began several years ago, the Bush administration started paying attention -- and funding locally unpopular warlords to gather intelligence and gird for battle.
"By making a bad bet on the warlords to do our bidding," incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) charged last week, "the administration has managed to strengthen the Courts, weaken our position and leave no good options. This is one of the least-known but most dangerous developments in the world, and the administration lacks a credible strategy to deal with it."
The incoming chairman of the panel's Africa subcommittee, Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), who returned from talks with regional governments and U.S. military personnel in Africa last week, called the situation "dire" and said he will hold hearings in January.
Feingold complained to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this summer that the administration lacked a "comprehensive strategy" and had not devoted high-level attention to the matter. It was an indirect critique of Frazer, left largely in charge of the issue, that is echoed by some U.S. allies and nongovernmental organizations in the region, who say she lacks the authority and skill to forge a diplomatic solution.
One senior European diplomat whose government closely consults with the Bush administration on Somalia concluded that "not much time has been given to this at the senior level." He said that he was told at the State Department that 75 percent of Rice's efforts were being spent on the Middle East and that he asked: "What does that leave for the rest of the world?" His government, he said, has urged the administration to work harder on uniting the Baidoa authority before sending it into negotiations with the Islamists.
John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group, who worked on Africa issues in the Clinton National Security Council and State Department, called the current administration's policy "idiotic." Tacit U.S. support for Ethiopia's military incursion has "incalculably strengthened" the Courts' appeal to Somali nationalism and "made our counterterrorism agenda nearly impossible to implement," he said.
A visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, this month by Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, sent the wrong signal to Somalis whose concern about Islamist power has been overshadowed by anti-Ethiopia fervor, Prendergast said. U.S. officials said Abizaid urged Ethiopian restraint.
The administration is not taking the criticism lying down. Even before the Courts' takeover of Mogadishu in June, Rice devoted "a good, long, two-hour session" to the subject and asked for "better options," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. The result was the formation of a "Somalia Contact Group" that has held talks among representatives of the Courts, the Baidoa government, other regional actors and U.S. representatives.
Early this month, the United States sponsored a U.N. Security Council resolution backing an all-African peacekeeping force -- excluding Ethiopia, Eritrea and other frontline states -- although no nation has made a commitment to send troops and funding is uncertain.
"Is the situation what we want it to be?" McCormack said. "No." But Rice "thinks we're doing the right things, and she hopes it will eventually bear fruit."
"I think this town wants to villainize someone for a hard problem," Frazer said in an interview. "So you're looking for the failure of something . . . a policy, an individual, U.S. interests. I think that's so unsophisticated, because what we have is a major challenge with not a lot of leverage at this moment in time. . . . Instead of recognizing the complexity of the situation, there is the tendency to say, 'Well, they're just wrong.' Some of that is frustration. Some of that is politics. And some of that is straight ignorance of the facts themselves."