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Analysis: What now in Somalia?
By SHAUN WATERMAN
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- The ousting of Islamist militias from Somalia by Ethiopian troops and the installation of a weak, but internationally recognized, transitional government not only nips in the bud an emergent terrorist sanctuary but also represents an important opportunity for progress in the war-ruined nation.
A series of regional experts and officials consulted by United Press International said that the expulsion from Mogadishu of the Islamic Courts Union, the loose militia coalition that until Christmas controlled most of Somalia, presented an opening. But they also cautioned that unless international peace-keepers were able to deploy swiftly in support of the newly installed Transitional Federal Government, the country could slip back into the chaos that swept the Islamists to power in the first place.
"The international community needs to jump in there quickly," said Karen von Hippel, a former United Nations post-conflict reconstruction official in Somalia, now based at the Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
In the closing days of last year, Ethiopian armored columns with air support rolled into Somalia, the culmination of months of growing tensions with the courts' militias, which have backed separatist rebels against Addis Ababa and sought aid from Ethiopia's regional arch-rival, Eritrea. The Ethiopian military took Mogadishu with barely a shot fired, and installed the Kenyan-brokered coalition transitional government there.
David Shinn, a former senior U.S. diplomat who held several posts in the region and now studies it at George Washington University, told UPI that "the immediate threat" from recently emerging extremist militia leaders linked to al-Qaida "appears to have been neutralized ... at least for now."
In the past several months, U.S. officials have grown increasingly concerned about the growing influence within the Islamic Courts Union of individuals and groups linked to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network, saying the courts' sway -- which was initially welcomed by many Somalis as the end to years of worsening anarchy -- was making the country a sanctuary for global Islamic terrorism.
Shinn said individuals within the fluid and poorly understood hierarchy of the courts union were linked to al-Qaida. But he echoed the caution of many others familiar with the region, saying it seemed some U.S. officials might have "overstated the case" about the terror network's influence in Somalia.
Shinn said the conspicuous silence of U.S. officials prior to the long-expected Ethiopian incursion, and the "very mild" character of their comments since represented "at a minimum a blinking yellow light, maybe a green one" for the operation.
Hippel said it was noteworthy that the United States, which has a history of policy missteps in Somalia, in this case appeared to have succeeded by not acting.
"Everything we've done has been counter-productive," she said, citing CIA support last year for a rapacious warlord's alliance which had plundered Mogadishu under the guise of fighting terrorism. "Now, when it seems we haven't done anything, it is working."
Shinn said the militias that had provided the courts' military power were "much diminished and scattered," by their rout at the hands of the Ethiopians. Members of even the allegedly hardline extremist groups like the so-called Shebab, or Youth, militia "turned out to be fair-weather followers" who had simply "melted away" at the first sign of determined military opposition, he said.
Hippel said it was unclear why the Islamic courts militias had collapsed with such extraordinary speed. "Could it have been a strategy?" -- To melt away and re-group for an insurgency later? Or were they simply overwhelmed?
Despite an ambush of Ethiopian troops by a Somali gunman this week, and threats from some Islamist leaders of an Afghan-style insurgency, Shinn dismissed parallels with the situation there. Taliban-style extremism "doesn't go down well in Somalia," he said. "The differences (between Somalia and Afghanistan) are far greater and more significant than the similarities."
He said some of the reports that Arab, Chechen and Pakistani militants had answered a recent call by the courts' leaders for a defensive jihad against Ethiopian troops were probably true, but said estimates of their numbers were largely guess work.
"I haven't seen any numbers I have any reason to believe," he said. "They all seem to be pulled out of the air."
Moreover, the geographical and social terrain in Somalia was not conducive to the kind of insurgency being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. "They would have trouble hiding themselves," he said.
Hippel said one lesson that needed to be learned from Afghanistan was the need to do "the hard work of building governance ... and institutions." She said the failure to do that in Afghanistan after the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 enabled its fighters to regroup and launch the insurgency that continues today.
She said the transitional government needed "to sit down quickly with the moderate leaders" of the courts union and "bring into the government as many of (them) as possible."
An immediate danger was that a continuing Ethiopian military presence in the country could allow Islamists to re-group under the nationalist mantle. Ethiopia and Somalia have fought two wars, the most recent beginning in 1977. Although the conflicts have revolved around irredentist border and ethnic disputes, terrorist leaders like Ayman al-Zawahiri have cast them in religious terms, calling for Jihadis worldwide to help defend the courts regime against "crusader" Ethiopia.
Both Shinn and Hippel said that the Ethiopians were aware of the danger they will be seen as occupiers and wanted to leave as soon as possible. Shinn pointed out that, whereas the Somali transitional government Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi had said the Ethiopians might stay for months, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the parliament in Addis Ababa that they would be out within weeks.
Urgent diplomatic consultations were underway Wednesday in Addis, where Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was meeting Zenawi to discuss the deployment of troops in Somalia as part of a peacekeeping force with a United Nations mandate.
Military analysts pointed out that, even if sufficient pledges of troops could be garnered, any African peacekeeping mission would require comprehensive logistical support -- airlift capacity to get them in and out, and supplies of fuel, food and ammunition while they are deployed.
That issue was likely to be on the agenda in Brussels Wednesday, where diplomats from the International Contact Group on Somalia were meeting.
"It's important to get everyone on the same page," said Hippel.