Stopping the Threats of Piracy and Terrorism in Somalia

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

SKILLFUL SHOOTING by U.S. snipers rescued an American ship captain from Somali pirates Sunday -- along with an Obama administration facing its first foreign emergency. Unfortunately, no silver bullets are available for the growing threat of piracy in the Indian Ocean or the toxic anarchy that has spawned it.

President Obama said in a statement Sunday that "we must continue to work with our partners to prevent future attacks, be prepared to interdict acts of piracy and ensure that those who commit acts of piracy are held accountable for those crimes." Those actions are certainly necessary, and they speak for themselves. But they don't begin to address the underlying problem, which is Somalia's long-standing status as a failed state and the desperation and extremism growing among its Muslim population.

Since the Clinton administration abandoned a U.N. mission in Somalia 15 years ago, the United States has tried ignoring the chaos there, using proxies to subdue it and targeting its worst elements with airstrikes. An international naval task force has been cruising along the coast for months to deter piracy. All along, the country's misery and the threat it poses to the United States and other Western countries have steadily worsened. It's not just the pirates, who have staged at least 66 assaults so far this year and hold more than a dozen ships and 200 foreign crew members hostage. As senior U.S. officials have repeatedly acknowledged, a radical Islamist militia that controls much of Somalia has ties to al-Qaeda, which has used its Somali base to stage attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets in Africa and is believed to be training foreign militants -- including some Somali Americans -- for future operations.

Again and again, mostly for political reasons, U.S. administrations have refused to absorb the lessons Somalia teaches, in tandem with pre-2001 Afghanistan and the tribal territories of present-day Pakistan. Those lessons are that stateless territories, particularly in the Muslim world, can pose a significant threat to U.S. interests and even homeland security, and that the danger can be adequately addressed only by helping a state authority emerge to fill the vacuum.

Last week's crisis offers the Obama administration an opportunity to avoid perpetuating past errors. No, we aren't advocating another massive U.N. intervention in the country backed by U.S. troops. As the Bush administration discovered late last year, there is no appetite among America's European or African allies for such an operation. But what would be possible is a concerted push to strengthen the most recent attempt at a Somali government -- a not-unpromising coalition between moderate Islamists and various clan-based factions. The government needs massive economic aid, training and equipment for an army and coast guard, and help in brokering political deals.

A coordinated international effort to build up a Somali government and security forces would cost many billions of dollars and take many years to pay off. It would consume U.S. diplomatic capital and be domestically controversial -- like the nation-building missions underway, at last, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also the only way to end the threats of piracy and terrorism from the Horn of Africa.

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