Rampant piracy plaguing the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast will be difficult to curb without political progress within Somalia, a country that has come to exemplify the term “failed state.”
For the past two years, forces of an Ethiopia-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) have been fighting for control of the country with troops allied with the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a fundamentalist group that was on its way to unifying Somalia before it was overthrown by an Ethiopian invasion.
The Bush administration facilitated that invasion with logistical help and has backed the TFG. Washington regards the ICU as a group of Islamic radicals linked to al Qaeda. But the TFG lacks popular support and has not been able to govern effectively.
In a stunning development, Ethiopia announced last weekend that it would withdraw its remaining 2,000troops in the country by the end of the year and called on the United Nations to send in a stabilization force. Some 2,600 African Union peacekeepers are already in the country but have rarely strayed from urban areas.
Alarmed by the piracy incidents as well as Somalia’s continuing chaos, the Bush administration this week co-sponsored a U.N. Chapter 7 resolution, labeling the piracy a threat to international peace and security.
“Somalia is indeed a very serious problem, and we are working with our partners within the U.N. framework to try to see what we can do to not only deal with this piracy issue effectively, but also with how we can go one step further and deal with the stabilization issue in Somalia,” State Department spokesman Robert Wood said.
Senior U.S. officials said the Bush administration is preparing another U.N. resolution calling for a peacekeeping mission for Somalia. That text is not yet complete because of disagreements in the administration over how detailed the draft should be and which countries should contribute to the mission, the officials said.
Even with the Ethiopian troops at its side, the TFG has lost town after town to the ICU. Two weeks ago, the TFG, which is recognized by the international community, reportedly told observers that it could not survive without Ethiopian help.
Herman Cohen, an Africa specialist and former State Department official, told The Washington Times that the ICU is trying to rein in a radical youth faction, known as the Shabab, and has clashed with it in the northern part of the country.
The effort by the ICU to put down its radical youth faction came after the Shabab carried out five synchronized car bomb attacks against the TFG in October, Mr. Cohen said.
He added that the ineffectiveness of the TFG and the ICU’s stand against Islamic radicalism “present President-elect Barack Obama with an opportunity to change a Somalia policy that is not working.”
However, David Shinn, an Africa specialist at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said the United States should allow more time for the TFG and ICU to try to come up with a government of national unity, as agreed at a meeting of combatants and neighboring states in Djibouti this summer.
Reports that foreign jihadists have entered Somalia to fight the transitional government have troubling parallels to the revival of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the rise of the Iraqi insurgency after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Formed in exile in Kenya, the TFG was initially installed in the provincial town of Baidoa. It entered the capital Mogadishu two years ago with the assistance of more than 10,000 Ethiopian troops. Its leader, Abdullahi Youssef Ahmad, had headed a section of Somalia called Puntland.
Somalia, an impoverished nation of about 9 million people, has been without central authority for nearly three decades.
A dictator, Siad Barre, once pro-Soviet, switched to U.S. allegiance after Somalia’s rival, Ethiopia, was taken over by a communist, Mengistu Haile Mariam. In the 1980s, Somalia fought Ethiopia in the southeastern region of Ethiopia known as the Ogaden, populated by ethnic Somalis but given to Ethiopia in the colonial era. Ethiopia prevailed, however, and Mr. Barre was overthrown in 1991.
Somalia historically has been a society in which clan loyalties have thwarted most attempts to create larger political units. This is unusual in Africa, where the tribe is the dominant local unit in most states.
The country was also one of the earliest to adopt Islam. The Sunni, or orthodox version of Islam, began seeping into the Horn of Africa nation in the early eighth century, not long after the death of the prophet Muhammad.
Since Mr. Barre’s ouster, both clan politics and Islamic fundamentalism have combined to tear Somalia apart.
A severe famine triggered in part by clan warfare led to international efforts to feed the Somali people in the early 1990s. U.S. forces were deployed in late 1992 to protect U.N. food shipments but found themselves fighting the powerful Hawiyeh clan headed by Mohammed Farrah Aidid.
Caught in a firefight in the Mogadishu in 1993 during an attempt to arrest Mr. Aidid, 18 U.S. soldiers died and their bodies were dragged through the streets of the capital. President Clinton withdrew U.S. troops, leaving Somalis to decide their own fate.
Their inability to stabilize the country has made Somalia a magnet for pirates, who have become increasingly bold in their attacks on naval traffic off the country’s 2,400-mile coast.
About 100 pirate attacks have been reported so far this year in or near Somali waters - including an unsuccessful attempt Tuesday to commandeer a U.S. cruise ship. Forty ships have been hijacked.
Fourteen ships with 250 crew remain in pirate hands, including a Saudi supertanker, the Sirius Star, seized last month with about 2 million barrels of oil aboard.
Peter Swift, managing director of the International Association of Independent Tanker Owners, told the Associated Press recently that a naval blockade that includes air support is necessary to protect shipping traffic in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. Association members own about 28,990 tankers, or 75 percent of the world´s tanker fleet.
• Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.