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.
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.
Still, the cautious US approach suggests a realization that covert support for secular warlords appears to have backfired, analysts say.
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."