AN UNEXPECTED turn of events in Somalia has given the Bush administration a rare opportunity to help stabilize a failed state that has been a harbor and breeding ground for al-Qaeda. In less than two weeks of fighting, troops from neighboring Ethiopia appear to have decimated the Islamic Courts movement, which had controlled most of the southern half of Somalia during the past six months. Foreign jihadists, including some al-Qaeda members, have fled the capital, while many of their Somali allies have melted back into the population. A U.N.-sanctioned transitional government has taken up residence in Mogadishu, marking the first time the country has had a recognized and unchallenged government since 1991.
The development has confounded -- at least temporarily -- the numerous Western "experts" who predicted that Ethiopia's intervention would trigger a regional war or an Iraq-style quagmire and who blamed the United States for tacitly supporting an attack on a Taliban-style regime. In fact, many Somalis seemed to welcome the end of the Islamic Courts' stringently fundamentalist rule. But no one -- least of all Western outsiders -- can predict how long the relative quiet will last. The remaining jihadists may be planning an insurgency; warlords driven out by the Islamists are said to have reappeared in Mogadishu. The transitional government, an unwieldy coalition of clan leaders, is weak, and troops sent by Ethiopia's predominately Christian government are unlikely to be tolerated long in Somalia, given longstanding animosity between the two countries.
Frequently slow or stumbling in its response to developments in Somalia, the administration appears to recognize the chance for an advance in the global war with al-Qaeda: Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi E. Frazer, who has conducted recent U.S. diplomacy, was in Ethiopia yesterday and is expected to chair an international contact group meeting today in Nairobi. U.S. and European policy is aimed at mobilizing a peacekeeping force, composed primarily of Africans, that could deploy in southern Somalia in place of Ethiopian troops and prop up the transitional government. That government would, in turn, be pushed to negotiate with Somali clans that supported the Islamic Courts.
An immediate problem will be finding sufficient troops, funding their deployment and backing them up. Uganda has volunteered 1,000 soldiers, and Nigeria and South Africa expressed interest, but those commitments need to be firmed up and others secured. Western governments are reluctant to send their own troops to Somalia, given the disastrous end to a U.S.-led nation-building effort in the early 1990s. But the Bush administration, which by yesterday had not made any specific commitment to the mission, needs to be ready to quickly provide funding and logistical backing for an African force. If NATO airlift and supply assets can be mobilized, they should be. It may be that the prospect of stabilizing Somalia and eliminating it as a harbor for al-Qaeda will prove to be a mirage, but the administration must seize on the possibility that it is real.