Wednesday, December 27, 2006
IN THE PAST week a dangerous round of warfare has erupted in Somalia, a failed state in the Horn of Africa that the United States tried in vain to rebuild in the early 1990s. Troops from neighboring Ethiopia who were defending a U.N.-backed transitional government were attacked by forces of the Islamic Courts movement, which for the past six months has controlled much of the southern part of the country. Ethiopia responded by launching a full-scale offensive against the Islamists; by yesterday its forces had captured several towns and were said to be advancing toward Mogadishu, the capital.
For the Bush administration there was both good and bad news in these developments. The Islamic Courts movement poses a potentially serious security threat to the United States: Its leadership includes a U.S.-designated terrorist, and it is known to be harboring al-Qaeda militants, including several who helped carry out the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. In recent months it has been inviting radical Muslims to Somalia, and thousands have reportedly arrived from such countries as Syria, Yemen and Libya. In short, the Courts-controlled portion of Somalia has begun to look a lot like Afghanistan under the Taliban before Sept. 11, 2001.
Ethiopia's actions, however, are problematic. The country's autocratic government and a slight majority of its population are Christian; this has fueled resistance to its intervention from Somalis and Muslim governments that might not otherwise support the fundamentalist Courts. According to U.S. and U.N. reports, millions of dollars in funding and arms have flowed to the Islamists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Arab states, while neighboring Eritrea, a bitter adversary of Ethiopia, has deployed its own troops. Some experts warn that the fighting could morph into a regional war; others say Ethiopia could get bogged down in a prolonged guerrilla war with local and foreign Muslim insurgents.
Having floundered through a series of failed Somalia strategies, the administration appears to have a somewhat confused view of the latest fighting. Earlier this month it pushed for a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an end to foreign intervention, the deployment of a peacekeeping force and negotiations between the rival Somali governments. President Bush spoke yesterday with the president of Uganda, which had offered peacekeepers. Yet even while reiterating its call for negotiations, the administration also appears to be supporting the Ethiopian offensive: The State Department said that Ethiopia had a right to defend itself against the Islamists and that its troops were there at the invitation of a legitimate authority, the transitional government.
Maybe the Ethiopian forces will crush the Islamists and their al-Qaeda allies and thereby rescue the United States from its predicament. More likely, the administration will have to prepare for much more active U.S. engagement in what is emerging as a hot new front in the war on terrorism.