Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton met with Somalia's president, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in August and promised expanded US support for the war-torn country's struggling Transitional Federal Government (TFG).
Her meeting with Mr. Ahmed – a first for such a high-ranking US official – signals the importance of Somalia to President Obama's Africa policy. Regrettably, the current US approach may make things worse.
Despite 14 attempts to form a functioning government since 1991, Somalia remains the quintessential failed state. Its potential to serve as a haven for international terrorists and as a launching pad for piracy in the Gulf of Aden are but two reasons a stable Somalia remains a strategic national security interest to the US and the international community.
Renewed US focus on the region could not come at a more pressing time. Any scant authority the embattled TFG ever had over the south and central areas of the country largely has been lost to Islamist groups such as Al Shabab and Hizbul Islam – both of which have documented ties to Al Qaeda. And nearly a quarter million Somalis have been forced to leave their homes since fighting reignited in early May.
Further intervention will play directly into the hands of the extremists. US military strikes aimed at suspected terrorists in Somalia in the past several years have only galvanized popular support for the insurgents, while the US-supported Ethiopian invasion in 2006 is widely seen as a strategic disaster that led to the current conflagration.
Still, without external support, the TFG would almost certainly be overrun. So it is crucial that the Obama administration craft a policy that helps the Somali people while addressing US interests in regional stability and counterterrorism, without making things worse.
While a circumspect middle ground is needed, the current approach is misguided. The US and the international community have lent enough support to the TFG to taint the government's public relations campaign, but not enough to help it effectively govern.
Secretary Clinton pledged to double the military support given last month, when the US sent 40 tons of munitions to the TFG. Such support, however, may contribute to the rise of the extremism it seeks to prevent.
By publicly handing military aid to the TFG, the US is delegitimizing the moderate voices it seeks to embolden, as extremists are able to paint the government as a US puppet and play on historical grievances over foreign meddling.
In order to secure the region and protect US interests, Somalia needs a quieter, broader approach. Washington's ability to effect change on the ground there is limited. Yet its ability to unwittingly cause harm is great. So it must walk a fine line.
The US should end direct military aid to the TFG but increase multilateral assistance through the African Union mission and regional organizations.
The US can ramp up assistance to neighboring countries in securing their borders with Somalia, offering technical assistance and measured amounts of financial aid.
As the US has near unanimous regional support, it should act more aggressively in ending the arms shipments from Eritrea that currently feed the insurgency.
More effort must be made to encourage the TFG to negotiate with moderate factions in Al Shabab and other groups, exploiting emerging fissures within the Islamist insurgency.
The Islamist threat in Somalia is not monolithic, but insensitive and direct US involvement runs the risk of uniting the disparate factions and lending legitimacy to the anti-government movements.
The Obama administration must recalibrate and move forward with extreme caution as it begins to develop a coherent policy in the Horn of Africa. Anything less could spell disaster for US interests in the region.