By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 14, 2008
UNITED NATIONS -- The Bush administration will mount a last-ditch push this week to muster international backing for a relatively small U.N. peacekeeping mission in Somalia, in an effort to help stem piracy and prevent the resurgence of Islamist militants in the lawless East African nation, according to State Department officials.
The initiative -- which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will raise at a high-level United Nations meeting on piracy here Tuesday -- comes as the U.S.-backed Ethiopian military is preparing to withdraw its forces from Somalia at the end of the month, raising concerns that Islamist militants may seize control of Mogadishu for the second time in less than three years.
But the U.S. plan faces deep skepticism from the U.N. leadership and key European governments, which fear that a U.N. peacekeeping mission would lack the firepower and troops needed to succeed in Somalia.
Meanwhile, the commander of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, Vice Adm. Bill Gortney, cast doubt on the wisdom of a separate U.S. plan to seek U.N. approval for commando raids against pirates on Somali soil, saying the possibility of inflicting civilian casualties "cannot be overestimated," according to the Associated Press.
France, Britain and Russia are resisting the U.S. peacekeeping proposal, arguing that there is no peace to keep in Somalia. "It's hard to see it happening," a European official said. "We can see a case for a peacekeeping force to back a peace process, though it's not clear you have a viable peace process."
The United States has already begun informal negotiations on a resolution that would authorize the transformation of the existing African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) -- which includes 3,400 Burundian and Ugandan peacekeepers -- into a somewhat larger U.N. mission. The peacekeepers would be restricted to Mogadishu and other parts of southern Somalia, according to U.S. officials.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon concluded last month that even a larger and better-equipped U.N. peacekeeping force of 22,000 blue helmets would not be capable of stabilizing Somalia and that a much more powerful multinational force was needed.
But a spokeswoman from the U.S. mission to the United Nations, Nicole Deaner, rejected Ban's proposal Friday, saying it is not a "viable option" since no country is prepared to lead or finance such a mission. "AMISOM is an effective peacekeeping force and will provide a good starting place in developing and deploying a future U.N. mission," she said.
In an effort to bolster its case, the United States has warned that Ethiopia will delay its departure from Somalia only if such a peacekeeping force is approved. U.S. officials say they hope the resolution could be adopted in weeks but acknowledge that its passage is uncertain.
The Bush administration has received support from China and key African countries, including South Africa, which have pressed the United Nations to mount a large new peacekeeping mission in Somalia. "All the experts who know Somalia say the chance of everything falling apart is great," said South Africa's U.N. ambassador, Dumisani Shadrack Kumalo. "Unless something is done immediately, the radical Islamic groups will be running Mogadishu again tomorrow with very harsh Islamic principles that they want to impose."
The prospect of a resurgence by Somali Islamists, who briefly controlled Mogadishu until they were driven out by Ethiopian troops in December 2006, would represent a blow to Bush's counterterrorism strategy in Africa.
The Islamist insurgents, known as al-Shabaab, have been gaining strength, drawing support from Somalis who resent Ethiopia's military occupation. Al-Shabaab, or "the Youth," has local roots, but it has received backing from Ethiopia's regional rival, Eritrea, and has established links with al-Qaeda representatives outside the country.
"There are a lot of foreigners in the Shabaab, which means their agenda is less and less Somali," said Fabienne Hara, the New York director of the International Crisis Group. She said a push for power in Mogadishu by al-Shabaab would be messier this time around as it sparred with a "patchwork" of clans, militias and rival Islamist factions.
During her visit to New York, Rice is set to seek passage of a resolution authorizing foreign states "to take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia" in pursuit of pirates, according to a copy of the draft U.S. resolution. Rice will use the talks to open a broader discussion on the roots of Somalia's security crisis, as well as the need for a second resolution establishing a U.N. peacekeeping force. "There is, in our view, no sound resolution of the piracy problem in the absence of extending adequate governance," said a senior State Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "The essential piece is to get the U.N. peacekeeping operation in there and stabilize the situation."
Critics say the Bush administration's approach to Somalia is showing signs of increasing incoherence. They say U.S. support for Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia -- and its missile attacks against al-Qaeda targets in that country -- was a major blunder that strengthened al-Shabaab's standing, and that the U.S. push for a new force of U.N. peacekeepers will backfire.
"The strategy designed to block al-Shabaab actually gives them the target that fuels their insurgency," said Kenneth Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College in North Carolina. "It's self-defeating. The most effective way to stop al-Shabaab is Somali-led resistance."
The administration has been struggling for two years to persuade foreign governments -- including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria -- to lead or support a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. But the United States has faced resistance from the U.N. peacekeeping department, which is trying to get troops and equipment for troubled missions in Darfur, Sudan and Congo.
The U.N. bureaucracy has been sharply divided over Somalia, the scene of a disastrous joint U.S. and U.N. peacekeeping mission in the early 1990s. The United Nations' top envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah of Mauritania, sharply criticized U.N. military planners for proposing a force that is so sophisticated and costly that even "the U.K., France or the United States" could not meet the requirements.
"We need some kind of peacekeeping mission in Somalia to reassure people," he said. "We have a genocide in slow motion because Somalia has been abandoned by its own leadership, abandoned by the international community, and we have to do something today."