- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 27, 2007

Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia, and the subsequent routing of the Islamist militias that had held power since last summer in Mogadishu, created what has correctly been called a window of opportunity to end 15 years of clan-based strife in Somalia. But that window is not open indefinitely, and quick action is becoming increasingly imperative as Ethiopia begins to slowly withdraw its forces. The African Union approved a 7,600-member peacekeeping force for a six-month deployment in Somalia. Uganda, Malawi and Nigeria have promised troops, but a sufficient number has yet to be committed, much less mobilized.

The continued presence of Ethiopian forces is not viable in the long term because historic enmity between the two countries is breeding a nationalist backlash that may be reflected onto the Transitional Federal Government. Ethiopian officials have openly expressed plans to pull their force out in the coming weeks, but doing so without replacing it with an AU force of equal capacity is a recipe for a situation that is even worse: the renewed anarchy of clan-based warfare that has made the Horn of Africa an operational haven for al Qaeda terrorists.

The Islamic Courts Union found that ensuring law and order was a good way to win public approval, at least initially. The same formula could work broaden the transitional government’s support and overcome its negative perceptions, but the newly empowered government does not yet have that capacity. Warlords agreed to disarm earlier this month, but that peace is still tenuous. Thousands of Islamist fighters still roam Mogadishu. Bolstering the formerly marginalized and still-fragile transitional government needs to be the most immediate priority.

“The United States believes that the key to long-term stability in Somalia now lies in a process of inclusive dialogue and reconciliation — a Somali to Somali dialogue,” said Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, last week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The transitional government certainly has to overcome the impression that it is simply a foreign-backed entity. In order to prevent a reversion to the clan-based political divisions and to maintain its political legitimacy, the transitional government needs to engage the primary political actors, including clan leaders, warlords, and, according to Miss Frazer, the moderate elements of the disbanded Islamic Courts Union.

The United States has been active in promoting diplomatic and financial support for the AU stabilization force. Our efforts should continue, but the window of opportunity is apparently beginning to close.

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