TOPICS: Combating Al Qaeda-linked forces in Somalia

The next few weeks should reveal whether the United States, Ethiopia, and other African allies face an Iraqi-type and Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgency in Somalia — or the gradual stabilisation, however imperfect, of a state and society whose people have known little peace or well-being for generations. At stake is not just the stability of the Horn of Africa, but the broader effort to keep Al Qaeda and Islamists from exploiting failed or weak states. United States and possibly Ethiopian air strikes this week have taken aim at Islamist guerrilla sites in Somalia, an apparently successful effort to target suspects wanted for the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of two US embassies in East Africa. On Wednesday, a top Somali official said US troops were needed on the ground to weed out remaining extremists — and he said he expects them soon. The US should support African peacekeepers, but it would be ill-advised to send major military forces in a bid for stability.

In the final days of 2006, the Ethiopians, with superior military power, decisively helped restore the authority of Somalian PM Ali Mohamed Gedi’s shaky transitional government, which is backed by the US and many Western and African nations. Now, they are confronting the same dilemma American forces face in Iraq. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and anyone advising him has two alternatives. One is to maintain an expensive (if at least partly US-financed) occupation of Somalia - a traditionally adversarial neighbour. The second is to seek to avoid a full-scale jihad-type war in Africa’s Horn by withdrawing Ethiopian forces. Such a war could involve not only Somalia and Ethiopia, but others such as Eritrea, another inimical neighbour of Ethiopia that has been arming Somali Islamists, and Al-Qaeda-backed Somali Islamists, now underground and said by Gedi’s government to be preparing for terrorism and guerrilla war. Rapid Ethiopian withdrawal could trigger renewal of vicious sectarian fighting that has periodically torn Somalia since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. But staying on (as Gedi has hinted he wishes to do) will give Al Qaeda a cause and easy targets for the insurgency.

Against the background of the crises in Darfur and Somalia, the Pentagon plans to create a new Africa Command. US Fifth Fleet units are now patrolling pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast to block escape of Somali-based Al Qaeda terrorists. The new African Command has other backup base facilities that could support regional war operations.

But sending quantities of the overstretched US military forces in support of any Somali or other African government is something Washington should most definitely not do. Instead, Washington should work with all of its African and European allies to support African peacekeepers.

It should keep its promises of renewed economic and humanitarian aid, and do everything possible to discourage new proxy wars in Africa. — The Christian Science Monitor