Posted by: sean | January 8, 2007

Using Diplomacy in Somalia

There’s a very good op-ed piece on Somalia in today’s Times, A fleeting victory in Somalia. Jonathan Stevenson, at the United States Naval War College, argues, rightly in my opinion, that a robust round of diplomacy is needed to work out Somalia’s problems, namely, a power-sharing plan with the Islamic Courts and the transitional government, an engagement of clan leaders and an agreement on the place of Islamic law in Somalia. He adds that the US should join efforts by the EU and Kenya to help broker an agreement, similar to the one that finally ended the war between Southern Sudan and Khartoum:

The temptation in Washington will be to keep its distance and rely on Ethiopia, the European Union and Kenya for as long as possible. This attitude is myopic. Neither the American public nor the world believe that the Bush administration?s predominantly military approach to counterterrorism is working. Relying primarily on Ethiopian troops to tamp down Somali Islamism would represent a continuation of that flawed model, and of the corresponding risk of fueling the jihad.

The United States’ full participation in a diplomatic process in the Horn of Africa, on the other hand, would constitute a relatively low-cost way of signaling a new American approach to Islam and a re-engagement in sub-Saharan Africa, which has largely been left out of Washington’s post-9/11 calculus. A result could be a small political victory in the Muslim world that would deprive Osama bin Laden and his followers of a new grievance rather than supplying them with one.

He points out that any prolonged presence of Ethiopian troops could be very dangerous. Many Somalis are afraid of Ethiopian designs on the country and disconcerted by the recent comments of the transitional Interior Minister Hussein Mohammad Aideed (whose father was made famous by the “Black Hawk Down” incident) that Somalia and Ethiopia “should unite, just like the Europeans. One money. One passport. One security.”

The problem, then, lies in a tendency to rely on military force instead of negotiation. I tend to believe that it was a bad idea for the Ethiopians to invade; a better idea would have been negotiations in Yemen or Kenya to agree on a power-sharing deal, because even if the thought of another Islamic regime bothers me, the Courts did manage to bring some sort of stability and decrease the violence in the areas they controlled. Now, there is a risk that continued Ethiopian presence will rub Somalis the wrong way and that the spotty order of the Islamists will revert back to the reign of warlords and inter-clan violence.

A local radio journalist summed up the problems of an Ethiopian presence in the country, as reported by the Times:

With Somalia’s longtime fears that Ethiopia might swallow it, the sooner [the Ethiopians’ withdrawal] happens, the better. On Saturday, Nasteh Dahir Farah, a reporter for a Kismayo radio station, visited the town’s airport with three foreign journalists. The foreigners were allowed in. Mr. Farah was not. He was shooed away by Ethiopian soldiers at the gate and told never to come back.

“This is my country, not theirs,” he said. “If I didn’t have a job,” Mr. Farah muttered, straightening himself up and smoothing the shirt where he had been poked in the chest, “I’d join the resistance.”

A little humiliation, it seems, goes a long, long way.

And indeed it does, as we have seen throughout the Muslim world, but especially in Iraq.

So while it seems imperative for negotiations to begin in good faith between the transitional government, the clan leaders and the Islamic Courts, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the transitional government has let their Ethiopian-backed success go to their head. And remarks by the transitional defense minister do little to reassure me:

The big man in Kismayo is Barre Aadan Shire, the transitional government’s defense minister and a former warlord, whose strong jaw, natty goatee and bald head lend him an uncanny resemblance to Lenin. He says many people in Kismayo have asked him to reach out to the Islamists, but he does not want to. The last of the Islamist fighters have retreated to the Kenya border, about 150 miles away.

“If we were going to compromise,” Mr. Shire said, “why go to war?”

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