Two years after the administration of President George W. Bush backed Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia, President Barack Obama is being urged to pursue a much more flexible policy toward the East African nation than his predecessor and let Somalis, including Islamist leaders who were targeted by the invasion, sort things out for themselves.
Recent events in Somalia, notably Ethiopia's withdrawal and the installation as president of the former chairman of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, have created a major opportunity for patching together a government of national unity capable of restoring and maintaining stability for the first time since the overthrow of former President Siad Barre in 1991, according to experts here.
"There's a real opportunity for a positive breakthrough," according to David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia who teaches at George Washington University here. "The chances for this happening are perhaps only fifty-fifty, but, in the Somali context, a fifty-fifty chance of achieving a positive breakthrough is brilliant."
Another regional specialist, Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College, is not quite so sanguine but nonetheless agrees that the new unity government headed by Sharif offers "the best hope" to end the violence and avert a takeover by Al-Shabaab, a radical group of armed Islamists, some of whose leaders are reportedly linked to al Qaeda.
The Shabaab, a former ICU faction which the George W. Bush administration designated a terrorist group last year, currently controls much of southern Somalia, including the port city of Baidowa, where the transitional government had long been based, Kismaayo, and parts of the capital, Mogadishu.
"A period of armed clashes between the increasingly fragmented collection of Islamists, clan militias, and others is inevitable, but the departure of Ethiopian forces and the selection of a more-broad-based government create a much better context for the promotion of dialogue and negotiations," wrote Menkhaus in a new report released this week by ENOUGH, an Africa-centered project of the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank from which Obama is expected to recruit a number of senior foreign policy aides.
"A window of opportunity is opening in Somalia and must not be missed," he warned, urging Obama to make a "clean break" with Bush's policy by working for and supporting an "inclusive Somali government" that may well seek to engage and co-opt elements of the Shabaab as part of its effort to pacify the country.
Indeed, there were unconfirmed reports Tuesday from Mogadishu, where Sharif arrived Saturday after his election in neighboring Djibouti in late January by the Somali Parliament, that the new president has already met with a top Shabaab official, despite the group's rejection of the U.N.-backed "Djibouti peace process" that resulted in the replacement of the former hard-line president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, by Sharif.
Sharif was a key leader of the ICU in June 2006 when its forces routed a coalition of U.S.-backed warlords and took control of Mogadishu, initiating an unprecedented period of calm and stability in the violence-plagued capital.
That calm ended six months later, however, when Ethiopian forces, which had been protecting the Baidowa-based Transitional Federal Government (TFG) headed by Yusuf, attacked the ICU and quickly captured Mogadishu.
The Bush administration, which had grown increasingly worried that more-radical ICU leaders had eclipsed "moderates" like Sharif, backed the Ethiopian intervention with intelligence and logistical support. It even deployed Special Forces on the ground and carried out several helicopter-gunship attacks against suspected al-Qaeda associates in southern Somalia as the Ethiopian campaign wound down.
The ICU subsequently splintered, with an increasingly radical Shabaab leading the insurgency against the Ethiopians and TFG security forces, while others set up camp in Eritrea where they formed the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS).
The U.S. meanwhile carried out a series of cruise-missile attacks against Shabaab leaders believed to have links with al Qaeda, most notably a May 2008 strike that killed Aden Hashi Ayro who was rumored to be group's leader.
Those attacks, however, proved counter-productive, according to a report published last month by the Congressional Research Service's East Africa analyst, Ted Dagne, who noted that the insurgency only intensified after Ayro's death, which also led to the targeting by the Shabaab of western aid workers, virtually all of whom were withdrawn from the country.
"As conflict raged and humanitarian conditions spiraled, flawed U.S. policies only strengthened the Islamist Shabaab movement and its commitment to attack Ethiopian and western and United Nations interests, as well as regional governments collaborating with the United States," according to Menkhaus's report, 'Somalia After the Occupation: First Steps to End the Conflict and Combat Extremism'.
Since the Ethiopian intervention, more than 10,000 civilians have been killed, while more than one million more were displaced, and nearly 500,000 fled to neighboring countries, according to the CRS report.
With Ethiopia's withdrawal, which was completed late last month, the greatest concern here has been that the Shabaab would move to take control of Mogadishu, an eventuality that the Bush administration used to press – albeit unsuccessfully – the U.N. Security Council to deploy a U.N. peacekeeping force at the last minute.
In his report, Menkhaus argues that a radical Islamist takeover would "almost certainly set in motion some type of security responses from both Ethiopia and the United States, and ...usher in a new chapter of armed conflict and instability."
But a number of clan and rival Islamist groups have so far resisted the Shabaab's advances, an indication, according to Menkhaus, that the group "was tolerated and enjoyed some support when it posed as the main resistance to Ethiopian occupation, but is not acceptable to most Somalis as a source of political leadership once that existential threat has been removed."
Indeed, with the Ethiopians gone, latent differences within the Shabaab over clan and regional allegiances, as well as ideological divides over links to al Qaeda and other foreign groups, are likely to come to the surface, according to Shinn.
"The key now is how much support Sheikh Sharif really has in the country," he said. "That will probably determine the ability of him and whoever his prime minister will be to create a really viable government of national unity, and, if they do that, I see an opportunity to peel away support from the Shabaab."
"Much of that support is there because they pay well, they have weapons, and they are pretty well organized, but there is no particular ideological commitment among the rank and file, and if they see there's a new potential winner, and particularly one who can pay the bills, they will very seriously consider switching sides or becoming neutral or just going home," he added.
In this context, the new Obama administration should support Sharif's efforts to reach out to individuals and groups that were stigmatized by the Bush administration as terrorists, according to both Menkhaus and Shinn.
"Let the Somalis talk with whomever they want to talk with," said Shinn. "Don't try to discourage them; if they can work these things out and create a broader base, that's in the long-term U.S. interest."
"Though committed ideologues exist in Somalia, Somali political culture is fundamentally pragmatic in nature, privileging negotiations as the bedrock of politics," according to Menkhaus. "Policies which privilege Somali-driven processes, rely mainly on Somali interests and actors to drive outcomes, and respect Somali preferences will stand a much better chance of success than those imposed from the outside."
(Inter Press Service)