Multinational force makes Somalia a safer place

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MOGADISHU, Somalia — The first Ugandan soldiers to fly into Somalia 5 1/2 years ago came under attack as soon as they arrived: Militants fired mortars at the new mission’s welcome ceremony.

Today, backed by a sweeping multinational effort that includes $338 million in U.S. equipment, wages and training, the force of Ugandans, Burundians, Kenyans and Somalis that was deployed to take on the country’s Islamic radicals can claim a degree of success that initially had seemed highly unlikely.

When the Ugandan spearhead arrived on March 6, 2007, Somalia had been in chaos for years, ruled by warlords and insurgents bent on creating an Islamic state.

AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia, was the most ambitious response since the failed 1990s U.S. intervention of “Black Hawk Down” infamy.

The militants called al-Shabab, who once controlled nearly all of Mogadishu, have been gone from the capital for more than a year, and last month AMISOM booted them out of their last urban stronghold, the port city of Kismayo.

“I think from a military and security perspective it has been a success. Absent AMISOM, al-Shabab would now be in control of Mogadishu. We would not be talking about a new [Somali] national government with a president from civil society in charge,” said E.J. Hogendoorn, a Horn of Africa expert at the International Crisis Group, a think tank that tracks conflicts.

But if the specter of Somalia as al Qaeda’s next Yemen has been averted, the challenge now is to achieve strong central government for an estimated 10 million Somalis.

“What is necessary for the long term in Somalia is some sort of political resolution to this conflict,” Mr. Hogendoorn said.

Somali militants are melting into the local populace and could be preparing a comeback, as happened in Iraq and Afghanistan after invading coalition forces made early claims of success.

Al-Shabab still controls wide areas of south-central Somalia.

Their territory, however, is low-value countryside and shrinking, while Mogadishu and other urban areas are enjoying a long-awaited respite from Islamist radicalism.

Success, with foreign aid

Some may see AMISOM’s success as reaffirming the blueprint of African boots on the ground, backed by U.S., European and U.N. money, as a possible model for the future on this troubled continent.

But J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank, echoes Mr. Hogendoorn’s caution.

“It’s a success for the military strategy, but a military strategy can only achieve military ends Victory is secured when Mogadishu faces up to its political crisis. The military can clear out a space but cannot fill a space. That requires civil society and a political solution,” he said.

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