Recent reports that terrorists and hard-line members of the Islamic Courts in Somalia are on the run are capturing headlines. But that is only a small part of Somalia's story, and it shouldn't take our focus off the bigger challenge: Unless the United States helps create stability in Somalia, that country will remain what it has been since the early 1990s – a haven for terrorists and warlords, and a source of instability in a critical region.
Somalia's weak transitional government is trying to reestablish itself as the representative government for the people of Somalia. By all accounts, however, Somalis have not yet rallied behind that government. In fact, gun prices in Mogadishu are reported to be at an all-time high because of steep demand. And many of the warlords who have long used Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia as their own personal and violent fiefdoms are moving freely around the country. The hard-line Islamic extremists have receded into the sandy landscape, but Somalia's anarchic tendencies still remain.
The US needs to move quickly to prevent a potential return to large-scale violence in Somalia. More than ever, Somalia's instability matters to the region and to our own national security.
Over the past several years, lawlessness in Somalia has spread into Kenya and Ethiopia and has been convenient for illicit and underground organizations that do business on the black market worldwide. Somalia has also long been a refuge for terrorists, including three individuals suspected in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. A Pentagon spokesperson has confirmed that these individuals were the targets of recent US airstrikes in Somalia.
Targeting terrorists is important, but it's not enough. What is needed is a broader effort to establish political stability in Somalia. Al Qaeda leaders have made clear that they see instability in Somalia as an opportunity to extend their influence. The US needs to address that instability so that Al Qaeda can't use Somalia as another staging ground from which to harm America.
The US now must move quickly to ensure that Ethiopia's military incursion isn't just another chapter in Somalia's tumultuous history. While Ethiopia may have won a tactical success in Somalia, it failed to deliver a strategic victory because no one – not the international community, or Ethiopia itself – was prepared for the consequences.
When I met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi a few weeks before the incursion, he told me that Ethiopia did not have the capacity for nation-building and would withdraw from Somalia within weeks. Assuming Ethiopia will want to withdraw at some point in the near future, we will still be left with the same dangerous power vacuum that perpetuated the interests of warlords and extremists in the first place.
The US should take at least three critical steps to bring stability to Somalia in the coming weeks and months.
First, America needs to ramp up diplomatic efforts to build support for a robust international peacekeeping force that can deploy to Somalia immediately. The US will need to help – not necessarily with troops, but with airlift and logistical support and training. This force will need a clear mandate and the capability to bring about stability throughout the country.
Second, the US must work vigorously with Somalis, regional players, and the international community to help the Somalis create an inclusive national government. The Transitional Federal Charter, signed by numerous clans and tribes within Somalia in 2004, may serve as a starting point or reference, but we may need to revisit that document. While America's record isn't perfect, we have experience working with complex and ethnic- or tribal-based political systems around the world – from Bosnia to Afghanistan to Liberia. Without this work, no peacekeeping force will be capable of bringing about stability in Somalia, and no government will be capable of cobbling together a political coalition with the legitimacy to lead the country forward. Dispatching a US special envoy would help elevate our ability to deal with these multifaceted political issues.
Third, the US should push for a large international trust fund that would help the nascent Somali government get down to the business of governing. Lessons the US learned in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Kosovo may be instructive. Because Somalia's institutions are so weak and the needs of the people are so great, it is key that donor countries, the United Nations, and nongovernmental organizations contribute to stabilization efforts. These entities should coordinate their work to make sure that every dollar is used to help the people of Somalia – not inadvertantly diverted to prop up parochial and destabilizing interests.
Previous US attempts to resolve the competing and violent dynamics in Somalia have failed. Americans cannot forget that. But we cannot allow our past to overshadow the pressing security concerns we face in the region today. We have an opportunity to help the Somali people dig themselves out of almost two decades of chaos and to strengthen our national security. But if our government does not move quickly and aggressively on all fronts, Somalia will continue to be a haven for terrorist networks and a source of instability that pose a direct threat to the United States.
• Russ Feingold is a Democratic senator from Wisconsin and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on Africa.