As Ethiopian troops approached the Somali capital of Mogadishu in December, the leadership of the Council of Islamic Courts beat a hasty retreat, clearing the way for Somalia’s transitional government to enter Mogadishu for the first time. The United States has begun to seize on this abrupt and unforeseen chance, but the plausibility of an Islamist resurgence cannot be discounted. While the U.S. Navy patrols for escaping al Qaeda agents, U.S. efforts are needed to ensure that Somalia does not collapse and again become a safe haven for al Qaeda.
Ethiopia and Somalia have a history of animosity. Anti-Ethiopian sentiment is still strong among the Somali people, and the Ethiopian military backing of the transitional government threatens to further erode the already lacking base of popular support that the government will need in order to rule. A better option for stabilizing the weak government would be a peacekeeping force organized by the United Nations together with the African Union, even though such forces have been ineffective in the past and face a formidable challenge this time around.
The United States has been active in this process; Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, has met with regional leadership — including Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has pledged between 1,000 and 2,000 troops — and announced on Thursday her hope for a peacekeeping force “by the end of January.” Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has said that he wants to move his country’s troops out of Somalia within two weeks — leaving a small window of opportunity for the organization and deployment of a peacekeeping force. Despite the negative repercussions that may accompany a longer-term Ethiopian presence in the country, the prospects of a weak and unsupported transitional government are worse. The prime minister of Somalia’s transitional government seems to recognize this clearly, and has suggested that the duration of Ethiopian troops in Somalia should be measured in months, not weeks.
Should Ethiopia withdraw and leave the Somali government unable to stand on its own accord, and without a suitable stabilization force, the very real danger is not simply that the fall of the transitional government will precipitate a return to the lawlessness of the past 15 years and the return of radical Islamists. The Horn of Africa will become the third front of the transnational war. Osama bin Laden has declared as much, and the claim is not mere bombast.
The opportunity presented by the swift unseating of the Islamist militias seemed improbable one short month ago, but if the Somali government fails and the anarchy of warlords and clan-based rule resumes, then the Islamists will return, and that opportunity will have been lost. The United States will need to continue to move quickly despite reports suggesting that the militias have dissolved.