Friday 25 June 2004

Failing Somalia at Our Peril

My then colleague, John Prendergast, and I wrote this piece for The Baltimore Sun on 25 June 2004.


It is a failed state in which the United States knows al-Qaida and its allies have operated, where endemic lawlessness provides a haven for terrorists. Yet Washington isn't investing in talks aimed at addressing the failure of the state.

The failed state is Somalia, possibly the only country in the world without a government, and a perfect example of the humanitarian, economic and political consequences of state collapse. Most important from the U.S. perspective, Somalia's governance vacuum makes the Horn of Africa country a comfortable home for terrorist groups looking for refuge or a logistical staging area.

Given the stakes involved, one might expect the Bush administration to be extremely interested in the Somali peace process sponsored by the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), led in this instance by Kenya and begun in October 2002. If fractured Somalia can be put back together under some kind of stable government, that would be one less place for al-Qaida and like-minded terrorist groups to hide.

But Washington seems thoroughly uninterested in the peace process, which Kenya is trying to push into its third and final phase. Occasional, vaguely supportive statements from the State Department have done little to conceal a reluctance to re-engage in Somalia since the humiliating 1993 Black Hawk Down military debacle, when 18 U.S. troops were killed and their bodies dragged through the streets of the capital, Mogadishu.

Washington's current reluctance is misplaced, however. The Somali peace process doesn't need U.S. military boots on the ground; it needs American support in other ways, including considering peace and stability in Somalia to be a counterterrorism issue. Above all, the United States must bring more substantial representation to the IGAD talks on Somalia.

At the moment, the United States has only a "Somali watcher" -- former Ambassador John Yates, who works out of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya -- rather than a full-fledged, permanent, actively participating envoy as it has at other peace talks, including the IGAD negotiations over Sudan. Greater interest from others, notably the European Union, is also needed.

Together, the Americans and Europeans should dispatch envoys to shuttle jointly throughout the region with the aim of resolving the regional differences that have troubled the IGAD talks and thus give fresh impetus to all sides to take negotiations seriously.

Cynics might reply that Somalia's collapse cannot be repaired, that the accursed country's tortuous political and military dynamics have blocked international mediation efforts for over a decade, so it is not worth getting too excited about the latest talks. Indeed, since 1991, 13 major international peace initiatives have failed to tame Somalia. While the current attempt is the longest-running, it has little clear success to distinguish itself from previous efforts.

Sadly, however, this sort of thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The lack of U.S. interest -- and of international interest generally -- is a key reason the IGAD talks are foundering. If Washington gave the peace process more attention, it is likely the participants would as well.

The time to demonstrate that increased interest is now. Effectively stalemated since January, the talks in Kenya have reached a critical stage. Unless the IGAD ministers and their passive Western partners act collectively, the process will die, causing already increasing tensions in fractured Somalia to intensify and any semblance of a functioning government to be put off indefinitely. The country is run by warlords, and the only real law is violence.

America's diplomatic disengagement from the Somali peace process is hurting the U.S. war on terrorism. Continuation of a failed state in Somalia ensures that U.S. interests and allies in the region remain dangerously vulnerable to terrorist attacks. Radical Islamist agendas will only be fed by the continuing instability, impunity and lack of government in Somalia. Supporting peace and stability in Somalia today will help to create one less haven for terrorists in the future.

John Prendergast is special adviser to the president of the International Crisis Group and Andrew Stroehlein is its media director.

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