Strike From Afar

Saturday, May 3, 2008

TOMAHAWK MISSILES fired by a U.S. Navy ship demolished a house in central Somalia on Thursday and killed a vicious militia leader and al-Qaeda operative. It was a victory for the Bush administration's counterterrorism operations in Africa -- and a demonstration of the limits of a strategy based almost entirely on "over the horizon" military strikes.

Aden Hashi Ayro, the man who was killed, deserved the label of "evildoer." As chief of the extremist al-Shabab militia, he supervised and probably participated in the murder of foreign aid workers, teachers, an Italian nun and a British journalist while directing al-Shabab's insurgency against the shaky, internationally backed Somali government. As al-Qaeda's chief liaison in the Horn of Africa, Mr. Ayro coordinated the movements of militants and money, and he sheltered several of the suspects in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. His death is at least a temporary setback for al-Qaeda and al-Shabab -- which was recently designated a terrorist group by the State Department -- and might even make it easier for more moderate Islamic leaders to participate in peace talks that the United Nations is trying to set up.

But Thursday's U.S. operation had a distinct downside: At least two dozen other people were killed in the attack, some of them apparently

civilians. Al-Shabab responded defiantly, and

Somalia-watchers said new leaders for the militia and al-Qaeda will quickly come forward, while fresh recruits may be gained through a backlash against the American intervention. The attack was the fifth U.S. airstrike in Somalia aimed at individuals with al-Qaeda ties since the beginning of 2007. While at least one other operative was killed, some of the attacks appear to have missed their targets while injuring civilians.

Somalia itself, meanwhile, has grown steadily more dangerous. The government, which is backed by Ethiopian troops, has lost ground to Islamist and tribal insurgents, and fighting has destroyed a large part of Mogadishu, the capital, while displacing up to 60 percent of the city's population, or 700,000 people. Famine is a distinct danger: The United Nations says that 2.6 million Somalis are in need of food aid and that the number could rise by the end of the year to 3.5 million -- half the country's population. The State Department has been supportive of the U.N. attempt to start peace talks, but most of the limited U.S. resources devoted to the country have been aimed at tracking down and killing al-Qaeda leaders and their


Somalia is a cautionary example for those who, like Barack Obama, favor rapidly withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and managing any threat from al-Qaeda with an "over the horizon" strike force. Such forces indeed have the ability to target and kill leaders. They do nothing, however, to change the conditions under which al-Qaeda finds refuge and recruits. As Gen. David H. Petraeus is demonstrating in Iraq, successful counterterrorism requires providing security for the civilian population, economic reconstruction and the brokering of political accords -- in other words, nation-building. That's as true in Somalia as it is in Iraq.

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