US trading hostilities for talk in Somalia?
An international meeting Thursday indicates the White House may be willing to work with certain Islamic militants.
Having failed to defeat Islamist factions in Somalia through covert action – yet unwilling to see the lawless country on the Horn of Africa become a haven for Islamist extremists, including Al Qaeda – the US is preparing for a more diplomatic kind of intervention.Skip to next paragraph
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On Thursday, the US will initiate a "Somalia contact group" of interested countries and organizations to begin deliberating on how the international community can help stabilize what experts consider to be a "failed state."
For many Americans, Somalia is best remembered for the 1993 operation to capture a Somali warlord in Mogadishu that ended in the deaths of 18 US soldiers. That incident led to a hasty US pullout – and the 2001 movie "Black Hawk Down."
But Somalia also offers a textbook example of how a failed state can become a power vacuum where forces opposed to US interests can take refuge and thrive, experts say – especially in an era when the US is taking an aggressive approach to radical Islam worldwide. Somalia has been without a viable central government for more than a decade.
US alarm over Somalia ratcheted up last week when Islamist factions, loosely aligned under the banner of the "Islamic Courts Union," took control of the capital of Mogadishu from rival secular warlords.
The US had been funneling support – arms and as much as $100,000 a month, according to some reports – to warlords opposing the Islamists.
US officials are also concerned that Islamist forces are harboring several Al Qaeda operatives wanted in connection with terrorist acts in Africa against US and Western interests.
Despite those concerns, the US is sending out conciliatory signals to the Islamic Courts Union, which vows to turn Somalia into a religious state under sharia law. In addition to setting up the international contact group, the State Department is issuing cautious, open-minded statements toward the advancing Islamists.
The tone suggests a carefully revised US position on Somalia, analysts say. The broader lesson, they add, may be that instead of rejecting Islamist political groups outright, the US will have to do more to differentiate friend from foe within Islamist political movements.
"It sounds like Plan A didn't work, so we'd better try Plan B," says Jim Bishop, who was the last US ambassador to Somalia, before the US evacuated its embassy there in 1991.
"It's disturbing when you see what appears to be the US government funneling supplies, including arms, to one group that has spent the last 15 years killing innocent civilians," he adds.
"Of course, we want stability and we don't want to see a terrorist haven there, but discussion and finding a compromise is better than Plan A."
Concerns about a terrorist refuge were at the top of the list when President Bush assessed the Somali Islamists' advance last week: "[Our] first concern of course would be to make sure that Somalia does not become an Al Qaeda safe haven, doesn't become a place from which terrorists plot and plan," Mr. Bush said.