ATHENS — On the map of northeast Africa, Somalia sprawls along the coast with the rough shape of a truncated sea-horse. It's a torrid, dried-out, postcolonial land of passionate people – poets, pirates, and would-be prophets. It was the delight of European adventure writers and is the despair of American politicians and diplomats eager to implant Western democracy.
Just this past week, Martin Adler, a distinguished Swedish newsman and filmmaker, became the 21st journalist – by my count – murdered there in the past decade. Immediately afterward, the powerful Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which now controls the capital, Mogadishu, and much of southern Somalia, named Sheikh Hassan Aweys, an Islamist on Washington's list of terrorist suspects, as head of its de facto parliament.
Somalis have lived with anarchy since the dictatorship of Siad Barre in 1969-81. Mr. Barre forcibly and superficially unified an intricate society of somewhat Afghan-style clans and warlords. Since then, Somalia has suffered war, famine, and a breakdown of civil society. As in too many other African countries, its children often do not go to school but become child soldiers or bandits.
Humanitarian nongovernmental organizations question whether they dare return to alleviate starvation.
President George Bush has wisely convened a symposium of experts on this neglected land. His senior military men must wonder how to avoid future mistakes like those that impelled President Bill Clinton to end the humanitarian military intervention of 1995, familiar to viewers of the film "Black Hawk Down."
Last month, for example, US-funded warlords fought the Islamist groups collectively using the ICU logo for control of Mogadishu. Since then, while pundits ponder this new example of the US backing "the wrong horse" (and wondering which horse, if any, is the right one), looming intervention by neighboring Ethiopia clouds the scene.
Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, ICU president, sent emissaries to Khartoum, Sudan, to meet with the weak but internationally recognized transitional government installed in the city of Baidoa. The two sides agreed not to fight each other, at least for now, and to negotiate in the future. The ICU accuses Ethiopia of infiltrating troops and agents into Somali territory near Baidoa.
Ethiopia supports Somalia's transitional government, created in Kenya in 2004 after an accord by a council of Somali notables. The head is a former geography teacher, Abdellahi Yusuf, who hails from "Puntland." This northeastern region (the head of the sea horse, if you like) seceded from central control after Barre's fall. It was paralleled by similar secession of the northwestern territory calling itself the Somali Republic. One of its main cities, Hargeisa, is near Ethiopian territory. Somalis ruefully remember the costly war with Ethiopia in 1977 over the disputed Ogaden territory, which Ethiopia largely conquered.
Rival Italian, British, and French colonial empires during the past 200 years have all played parts in creating today's problems.
Many Somalis still revere the poet and politico-religious Muslim leader Seyyed Muhammad Abdullah Hassan who lived a century ago. His mastery of alliterative traditional Somali poetry – a kind of rap often set to music – fired up Somalis into a jihad against the northern colony of British Somaliland that lasted from 1898 to 1920.
This helped to bring collapse to Somalia's largely pastoral and nomad economy. It was aggravated further by World War II fighting between Benito Mussolini's Italian Fascist forces and the victorious British.
France took Djibouti, once called French Somaliland. Today it's independent, at least on paper. Since the 1998 Al Qaeda attacks on US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, it has hosted, along with some French forces, a US aero-naval and intelligence base manned by 2,000 US Marines. US Navy Seabees train Djibouti forces and civilians in technical skills. The US Navy pursues Red Sea maritime piracy and tracks Al Qaeda terrorists and trains Kenyan naval commandos in northern Kenya.
John Prendergast of the nonpartisan International Crisis Group (ICG) says US funding of arms purchases by the Somali warlords since 2002 shows the US focused too much on "covert military intervention rather than restoring Somalia's economic and political infrastructure." He calls US involvement in the 1990s "throwing gasoline on the fire."
Meeting the Somali challenge should concentrate on control of the incessant arms traffic. It should consider calling in African Union or UN forces to protect aid to hungry Somalis, and lending political support to the transitional regime to transform it into a unified and strong federal system. This might reduce clan politics and encourage constructive action by neighboring African and Arab states to bring about peaceful change.
• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, has covered North Africa and the Middle East since the late 1950s. One of his books is "Baal, Christ and Mohammed, Religion and Revolution in North Africa."