U.S. must approach Somalia with caution

January 08, 2002|By Mirna Galic

WASHINGTON - Success raises expectations, and as Afghanistan's interim government begins its work, the United States has lifted its head from the dust to examine new potential targets in its war on terrorism.

Many an eye drifts toward Somalia.

A hop, skip and boat ride away from Afghanistan, the country allegedly contains terrorist-linked groups with al-Qaida ties and makes a ready haven of instability and lawlessness for al-Qaida members seeking refuge. U.S. action against terrorist-linked groups in the country would, one may argue, send a decisive message to those marking Somalia as a place to hide and regroup.

But Somalia should not be mistaken for the kind of low-risk, rapid-results operation with which the United States seeks to augment its Afghan-gained momentum for possible future action against difficult targets like Iraq.

Though we may be able to get at terrorist-linked groups in Somalia successfully, the risk is that U.S. action for these immediate gains could have longer-term destabilizing effects on the country that would result in an environment more hospitable to terrorism.

Such a scenario would occur if U.S. actions were to change the calculations or capabilities of opposing Somali groups considering continued conflict or possible peace. The actors in this category include the country's fledgling Transitional National Government (TNG).

Appointed in 2000 by a 12-clan consortium to facilitate the creation of a viable Somali government that would have been quite useful today, the fragile TNG controls little territory beyond Mogadishu, the capital, and is actively opposed by regional warlords and factions.

Among these is the Somali Reconciliation and Reconstruction Council (SRRC) coalition. Its leaders include Hussein Aideed, the son of America's 1993 nemesis, Muhammad Aideed.

Ironically, in the absence of a government with wide-reaching power, U.S. intelligence-gathering efforts have relied on warlords like Mr. Aideed to identify possible terrorist-linked groups and their locations.

But in a country perched so precariously between war and peace, our warlord interlocutors join U.S. anti-terrorism efforts with their own agenda.

Moreover, in a world in which U.S. power still rules supreme, our association can act as a greater legitimizing force than we might imagine.

So far, U.S. efforts in Somalia have been geared toward assessing the need for action. If experts determine that terrorist-linked groups pose little imminent danger, the United States would do best to exert active, continuous international pressure on the Somali parties to create a viable democratic government able to counter terrorist groups.

Meanwhile, the assembly of international monitors off Somalia's coast would continue to watch for ships carrying al-Qaida members to the country.

If, however, military action is deemed necessary, then the United States must take every precaution to ensure that such action does not undermine Somalia's prospects for peace.

To this end, Washington should not extend its information-gathering relationship with warlord groups into military collaboration. These groups should play no physical part in U.S. action against terrorist-linked organizations, and should not be armed as proxy fighters, Northern Alliance-style. Any such move would endow easily abusable power, and any such weapons would inevitably aid anti-government battles.

In addition, the United States should make clear that its dealings with warlord groups on behalf of its anti-terrorism efforts do not endorse or validate these groups or their goals.

Finally, the United States should avoid the temptation to use its anti-terrorism efforts to aid any one side in the conflict unless such action will be followed with a serious and continuous commitment to post-operation peacemaking and reconstruction efforts.

Somalia's internal and regional power struggle is too complex for any intervention effort that is only the byproduct of an operation focused on something else.

Speculation about U.S. action in Somalia is linked to the misperception that a Somali operation would be simple compared to the involved role we played in Afghanistan. Somalia is a more complex situation than Afghanistan because the latter had a clearly villainous government that we wished to eliminate. As a result, anti-government forces immediately emerged as protagonists; their desire to overthrow the Taliban meshed with both the U.S. will to do so and our capability to provide them with the necessary resources.

The key difference between Afghanistan and Somalia with respect to U.S. goals is that we don't want to weaken or overthrow the Somali government by strengthening the capabilities of the warlords. Equally important, we don't want to undermine a possible Somali peace process by introducing new elements that could change warlords' incentives for conflict and peace.

Unlike in Afghanistan, we are not prepared politically to undertake the reconstruction efforts that would be necessary in the face of both events. Afghanistan, with its culpable government, will not be typical of the type of operation we will face in the war against terrorism. Most cases will be like Somalia: difficult to assess and carrying complex secondary consequences.

In a war that by our own assertion will take years to complete, let us take the time to deal with such cases carefully.

Mirna Galic is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

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