NAIROBI â€” Anarchic Somalia has confounded US foreign policy once again, leaving Washington struggling to find a coherent approach to a state whose internal turmoil threatens to destabilise the Horn of Africa.
The Bush administration appears to have realised that its “one-size-fits-all” approach to countering global terrorist threats failed in Somalia. But it is groping for an appropriate response to the new situation, diplomats and analysts say.
Though overshadowed by the Middle East and Iraq, anarchic Somalia has long worried Washington because of fears its coastline â€” Africa’s longest â€” and proximity to the Arabian Peninsula could be exploited by fighters posing a threat to US interests and looking for a gateway into east Africa.
A covert counter-terrorism initiative in which the United States threw its support behind secular warlords fighting Islamists in Mogadishu backfired spectacularly in June. The US involvement actually worked to strengthen the Islamists’ hand and helped them conquer the capital, analysts say.
Now with an internationally recognised interim government’s hopes of survival flagging in the face of a well-armed and organised Islamist movement, Washington’s only play so far has been to promote talks to bring the Islamists into the administration.
“That happens to be the best option for the United States to be able to contain the formation of a strict Islamist state that would harbour the possibility of Islamic revolutionaries,” said Michael Weinstein, an analyst with the Power and Interest News Report think-tank.
A second round of talks between the Islamists and the government resumed over the weekend in Khartoum, under Arab League mediation.
But analysts believe the talks are unlikely to achieve much because the Islamists sent a relatively low-level delegation.
“At this point we are just watching (Somalia) very closely and will reserve judgement,” said US State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack.
Officially, Washington still backs the government despite its diminishing power.
“I understand that they are very weak and have become even weaker but we believe that is potentially something people can build on in Somalia,” McCormack said.
Black hawk down
At this point, Washington has few other options.
Still haunted by the 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident, in which 18 US soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in Mogadishu during a disastrous attempt to pacify the country, there is no possibility of US troop involvement.
The Bush administration strategy of preemptive strikes is likewise unworkable in the case of Somalia, said Weinstein, also a professor of political science at Purdue University.
“It’s a case against the Bush doctrine â€” what are they going to hit? I believe that the US choices are not between direct strikes, or even very surgical ones. It is between continuing to back Ethiopia or some sort of power-sharing agreement,” he said.
Ethiopia, the Somali government’s chief ally and protector against the militarily superior Islamists, has long been Washington’s top counter-terrorism ally in the Horn of Africa.
That, many believe, led Washington to covertly support the Mogadishu warlords that Ethiopia had used as proxies for years.
Once that support became public, it gave the Islamists a nationalist rallying cry to propel their offensive.
Their victory was swiftly expanded, putting the Islamists â€” who Washington suspects harbour Al Qaeda operatives â€” in charge of a key swathe of Somalia including the main city Mogadishu and its crucial air and sea ports.
Ethiopia’s own rebels have long used Somalia as a base, and Somali Islamic fighters â€” among them current leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys â€” have helped them, leading Ethiopia to strike deep into Somalia several times in the 1990s.
Though Ethiopia has threatened to do that again if the Islamists attack the interim government, privately US officials say they fear that could give fighters more nationalist backing and provide a reason to attack targets in eastern Africa.
Instead, diplomats say Washington appears to be considering a change of policy to support a renewed push by Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda to bring in foreign peacekeepers to help the Somali government â€” a move it has previously vowed to block.
That African Union-backed initiative, pushed by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), has been delayed for more than a year.
But last week, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda worked quietly to get it off the ground, and it is expected to be the focus of a hastily called IGAD summit in Nairobi on Tuesday.