- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

For a few months around the turn of this year, U.S. policy-makers had the rare opportunity to speak optimistically about the future of Somalia. “For over 15 years now, we have all been preparing for that moment that offers a glimmer of hope,” said Ambassador Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs. “It has arrived and we should seize it.”

Ethiopian forces had dealt forces from the Council of Islamic Courts a surprisingly swift defeat, turning the tables just as the Islamist militias seemed poised to overrun the effectively powerless, though internationally recognized, U.N.-backed government and cement control of the country. As the Islamist leadership and its fighters fled Mogadishu, the Somali capital, in disarray, it was clear, as we argued at the time, that the opportunity to put the war-torn country on the path toward lasting peace and legitimate governance was real, but needed to be seized quickly, before the Islamist militias were able to reorganize. The staggering renewed violence, which the International Committee of the Red Cross called the worst the country has seen in 15 years, is only the most recent evidence that the situation in Somalia has degraded, and the sense of optimism shelved.

Somalia’s return to violence, fueled by a mix of Islamist insurgency and clan-based strife, portends a return to the kind of failed state that provided al Qaeda terrorists with a safe haven from which to operate. Those responsible for planning the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania sought refuge in Somalia, and the country’s location in the Horn of Africa makes it strategically important to the Middle East as well. The conflict has drawn foreign fighters, some affiliated with al Qaeda, according to the State Department.

The fragile Somali government suffered from questions of legitimacy because of its foreign backing. To many in Somalia, which historically has had an unfriendly relationship with its neighbor, Ethiopian forces were unwelcome from the beginning. To support the government, a neutral force under the auspices of the African Union was approved. To date, only Uganda has troops in Somalia as a part of the AU peacekeeping force. And Uganda’s forces number around 1,400 — well short of the 7,600-member peacekeeping force that the AU had called for originally.

The resurgent violence is likely to discourage other countries that had pledged to send troops. Calls for peace from influential clan leaders have also failed to allay the violence, as did a truce negotiated between the government and the Islamist militias. As the government warns civilians to flee certain sections of the capital, it has become clear that the window of opportunity opened in December has closed. Policy-makers must now begin peace efforts anew.

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