US trading hostilities for talk in Somalia?
An international meeting Thursday indicates the White House may be willing to work with certain Islamic militants.
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Still, the cautious US approach suggests a realization that covert support for secular warlords appears to have backfired, analysts say.Skip to next paragraph
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The outside support for feared warlords may have prompted the Islamists to act, while driving growing numbers of a security-seeking public into the arms of religious militants.
Another reason for American caution may be that Islamist militias are not a unified group. The US is seen to be appealing to the more moderate factions of the Islamic Courts Union, with the intent of separating out those elements that have already declared their opposition to providing a refuge for terrorism in Somalia.
What the US has to guard against, experts in Muslim countries say, is seeing all Islamic political movements through the prism of the war on terror and automatically putting America's weight against Islamist militants in a struggle like Somalia's.
"We need to choose our battles very carefully and avoid situations where Al Qaeda chooses our alignments for us," says James Dobbins, an expert in security issues at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Va. "If that were the case," adds the former diplomat with experience in the Balkans and Afghanistan, "we would have been on the side of Serbia in Bosnia."
Of course, the US is also dealing with the recent memory of Afghanistan, where the Taliban came to power in 1996, promising stability after years of internecine fighting. But the Taliban ended up imposing an oppressive Islamic regime that granted a safe haven to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his training camps.
Still, memories of Afghanistan should not make the US suspicious of all Islamic political advances, some experts say. "It concerns me if we see everything as a battle against Al Qaeda," says Charles Dunbar, a former ambassador to Yemen and Qatar who is now at Boston University.
In fighting Al Qaeda, the US is up against "irreconcilable extremists," he says, but they are only a "very small minority" of Islamist political forces. He notes that truly free elections in many Muslim countries would result in Islamic regimes, so the US should avoid a blanket policy opposing all Islamist movements.
As for Somalia, Mr. Dunbar says, "We can't just say, "Will you impose sharia [law] and provide a base for Al Qaeda?' and think that's enough. We need to be engaged there so we know what's happening."
Perhaps most important, the US may be learning again why it can't just turn its back on failed states – as the Clinton administration, under heavy fire from Congress, did to Somalia after the Black Hawk Down fiasco.
Nor does covert US support for one armed group over another appear to be the answer.
"The US abandoned Somalia more than a decade ago because we weren't willing to pay the price," Mr. Dobbins says.
"Now we're seeing that while nation-building is difficult and expensive, the alternatives aren't very attractive."