The next few weeks should reveal whether the US, Ethiopia, and other African allies face an Iraqi-type and Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgency in Somalia – or the gradual stabilization, however imperfect, of a state and society whose people have known little peace or well-being for generations.
At stake is not just the stability of the Horn of Africa, but the broader effort to keep Al Qaeda and Islamists from exploiting failed or weak states.
US and possibly Ethiopian air strikes this week have taken aim at Islamist guerrilla sites in Somalia, an apparently successful effort to target suspects wanted for the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of two US embassies in East Africa. Wednesday, a top Somali official said US troops were needed on the ground to weed out remaining extremists – and he said he expects them soon.
The US should support African peacekeepers, but it would be ill-advised to send major military forces in a bid for stability.
In the final days of 2006, the Ethiopians, with superior military power, decisively helped restore the authority of Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi's shaky transitional government, which is backed by the US and many Western and African nations. Now, they are confronting the same dilemma American forces face in Iraq.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and anyone advising him has two alternatives. One is to maintain an expensive (if at least partly US-financed) occupation of Somalia – a traditionally adversarial neighbor. The second is to seek to avoid a full-scale jihad-type war in Africa's Horn by withdrawing Ethiopian forces.
Such a war could involve not only Somalia and Ethiopia, but others such as Eritrea, another inimical neighbor of Ethiopia that has been arming Somali Islamists, and Al-Qaeda-backed Somali Islamists, now underground and said by Mr. Gedi's government to be preparing for terrorism and guerrilla war.
Rapid Ethiopian withdrawal could trigger renewal of vicious sectarian fighting that has periodically torn Somalia since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. But staying on (as Gedi has hinted he wishes to do) will give Al Qaeda a cause and easy targets for the insurgency – which its deputy master, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently called for in a proclamation widely heard and acknowledged by Islamists in the region.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has responded to the crisis with a sensible and urgent call: East Africans should immediately deploy the delayed peacekeeping force the United Nations first approved Dec. 6. Ms. Rice's assistant secretary for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, met last week with Mr. Zenawi and Ugandan Prime Minister Yoweri Museveni in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to discuss Somalia. "Another Iraq is not going to happen in Somalia," said Zenawi. But Ms. Frazer had to cancel a planned visit to Mogadishu, Somalia, for security reason.
She also met European, African, and Arab diplomats in Nairobi, Kenya, and pledged US aid to stabilize Somalia. The meeting pledged financial support for a peacekeeping force and a plan to ask South Africa and other African governments to send troops. So far, only Uganda has pledged soldiers, but has also said it wouldn't send them until formal lifting of a UN arms embargo on Somalia.
Nearby, Sudan's pro-Islamist government has stubbornly opposed admission of any sizable UN Security Council-mandated peace force to end massacres in Darfur that have also destabilized neighboring Chad and the Central African Republic.
Against the background of the crises in Darfur and Somalia, the Pentagon plans to create a new Africa Command. US Fifth Fleet units are now patrolling pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast to block escape of Somali-based Al Qaeda terrorists.
The new African Command has other backup base facilities that could support regional war operations. But sending quantities of the overstretched US military forces in support of any Somali or other African government is something Washington should most definitely not do.
Instead, Washington should work with all of its African and European allies to support African peacekeepers. It should keep its promises of renewed economic and humanitarian aid, and do everything possible to discourage new proxy wars in Africa.
• John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, covered the Middle East and North Africa for more than 40 years. He is the author of "Baal, Christ, and Mohammed: Religion and Revolution in North Africa."