Force Won’t Bring Peace to Somalia

The sudden defeat of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) by the Ethiopian army and their U.S. backers proved easier then expected. A reported 15,000 Ethiopian troops and U.S. aerial bombardment succeeded in installing the Transitional Federal Government, two years after its formation in neighboring Kenya.

Despite the ICU’s military defeat, the war is far from over. Three issues are very important to examine as the crisis in Somalia continues to unfold. First, can the transitional government survive without the presence of the Ethiopian or American troops? Second, how much does the foreign troops’ presence help or hurt the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its people? Third, how willing is the United States to support a government that has no popular support base?

Experts in the region believe that the United States has directly or indirectly supported this operation because of the Islamists’ alleged al-Qaida associations and the assumed provision of safe heaven for al-Qaida operatives. The recent military air raids in southern Somalia confirm U.S. involvement and suggest, unfortunately, that the Bush Administration has chosen yet again force over diplomacy.

Military Approach Increases Animosity

While the Bush Administration and the Ethiopian regime may have legitimate concerns vis-à-vis the ICU, invading a sovereign nation and killing innocent civilians does not justify this agenda. The military approach will only increase animosity between Americans and the Muslim world. In Somalia, this military aggression escalates tensions with neighboring Ethiopia and re-ignites anti-American sentiments throughout the country. It has the potential to prolong the Somali conflict, increase the humanitarian crisis and increase the likelihood of insurgency.

It is true that the ICU, unlike the transitional government, enjoyed popular support though they were far from perfect. The ICU’s “hard” negotiation style dragged the reconciliation process and disappointed many of their early supporters. Their military expansion to areas controlled by the transitional government and their decision to engage the powerful U.S.- backed Ethiopian army were suicidal and politically immature. The ICU lost a golden opportunity to bring a lasting peace to Somalia.

Unfortunately, the transitional government seems to be following suit by imposing martial law, ceding all power to the president. Parliament’s unanimous approval of this law was unsurprising to Somalis since the parliament generally acquiesces to presidential mandates. Moreover, those who followed the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-sanctioned Embagathi reconciliation process that produced the transitional government know full well that most of the members of the parliament and the government have been handpicked by Ethiopia. Not only is the emergency law counterproductive, it indicates the transitional government’s unwillingness to reconcile with all parties in this conflict which is the only way they can regain their legitimacy to govern. The transitional government can only win the hearts and mind of the Somali people and the international community through its deeds but not through force.

Viable Alternative: Diplomacy

Diplomacy is the only option. It is still possible to prevent the rise of an insurgency in Somalia. Consequently, the United States and the transitional government’s performance over the next few weeks will have a substantial impact on the direction of the Somalia crisis.

The United States and the international community have a moral obligation to play a positive role in helping Somalis help themselves. The U.S. should refrain from all military operations and encourage the transitional government and its Ethiopian counterparts to stop hostile actions. Furthermore, the United States should press the Ethiopian government to withdraw its troops from Somalia. This will provide the transitional government with an opportunity to win the confidence of its people–an understandably difficult task under the present circumstances. To assist in this effort, an African Union peacekeeping force must be deployed as soon as possible.

The Bush Administration must also understand that with the complex political structure in Somalia, clan-based loyalties determine support for either the ICU or the transitional government. The present crisis has the potential to ignite long dormant clan conflicts. While the U.S. officials may view the ICU as religious extremists, members of their clans view them as their fellow clansmen. Aggregating them together under the umbrella of extremism, therefore, clearly alienates many clansmen who are not extremists.

Constructive Dialogue

The U.S. should encourage constructive dialogue between the transitional government and all parties involved in the Somalia conflict. The U.S. should support a democratic process for building the institutions necessary for a sustainable peace. This will reverse a tradition of warlord leadership and hierarchical top-down tyranny.

In order to dispel the notion that the transitional government is a puppet government for the Ethiopian and American regimes, it is imperative that an inclusive and broad-based government be fashioned. In its present form, the government is viewed as externally imposed with little popular support and legitimacy. Lasting peace and security can only be achieved if this government transforms itself into an entity genuinely committed to national unity and reconciliation.

Ethiopia should revisit its policy on Somalia since it is merely fuelling the historic animosity between the two countries. It is in the interest of the Ethiopian government to have a strong united Somali government that is accountable to its people.

The U.S. government must remain positively engaged in Somalia. But only through diplomatic means can the U.S. fulfill its obligation to end the suffering of the Somalia people and reduce the violence spreading within and beyond the Horn of Africa.

Khadija O. Ali, a former member of the Somali Transitional National Parliament and a Minister of State from 2000 to 2002, She is a doctoral student at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.