03/04/2007 - 08:36

Lessons from the Somalia bombing

Max Bergmann

Max Bergmann

A deputy policy director at the National Security Network, Bergmann worked as a research associate for national security at the Center for...

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When the U.S. military struck at suspected Al Qaeda terrorists in Somalia, it showed its ability to strike anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the response afterward also showed that the United States still lacks a clear vision or strategy concerning how it should integrate "hard power" counterterrorism tactics with more "soft power" capabilities.

Through years of neglect, the situation in Somalia took a dangerous turn in 2006. In the middle of the year, an Islamic movement gained tenuous control over the country and began implementing Taliban-like social restrictions while instigating a confrontation with Ethiopia's Christian government. When tensions finally boiled over, the irregular Somali forces were no match for the well-trained, well-equipped Ethiopian military.

The Islamists, allegedly harboring Al Qaeda terrorists, were pushed into the jungles and forests along Somalia's sealed southern border with Kenya. Prompted by Ethiopian intelligence, on January 7 and 8, 2007, U.S. AC-130 gunships and attack helicopters flying out of the U.S. base in Djibouti under Special Operations Command struck at the three suspected Al Qaeda members and the retreating Islamist forces. While it is still unknown whether the attacks hit any of their intended targets, they raise important implications for U.S. foreign policy in the so-called "war on terror."

First, in today's global fight against international terrorism, failed states require as much attention as rogue regimes. Since the end of the Cold War, Somalia has been ravaged by internal divisions and civil war, suffered from famine and disease, served as a source of regional instability, and become a haven for Al Qaeda. While the Bush administration has focused on confronting states such as Iraq and Iran, the situation in Somalia exposes how easily failed states can fuel regional instability and transform into terrorist sanctuaries. In a recent survey of terrorism experts by the Center for American Progress and Foreign Policy magazine, the situation in Somalia was described as the most likely country to become the next state-host of Al Qaeda.

Second, in order to effectively fight a global war on terror, it is essential for the United States to maintain a global military presence. Following 9/11, there was renewed U.S. interest in the region. The U.S. military established the Combined Joint Task Force--Horn of Africa in late 2002, which is headquartered in Djibouti. The Djibouti base has enabled U.S. forces to monitor the region, work with regional partners, and if necessary, take quick military action in response to actionable intelligence.

When the United States eventually withdraws from Iraq, it must adopt this approach and maintain a robust presence in the Gulf region. Former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke noted during a January event at the Center for American Progress, "How do we ensure that Iraq does not become that kind of sanctuary? The way we do in other countries around the world. We try to work with the host government, and if that fails, we engage in intelligence operations. And if that fails . . . we might engage as we apparently did yesterday in Somalia in brief military operations." In Iraq, the United States has already shown an ability to strike at targets with forces outside of the combat zone. The United States didn't kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi with forces on the ground, but with air strikes from F-16s based outside of Iraq.

Third, the attacks in Somalia show the need to support and bolster regional security forces. Ethiopia's occupation of Somalia must be short-lived because its continued presence only fuels resentment. However, Ethiopian withdrawal is contingent upon being replaced by an African Union peacekeeping force. But so far no African Union forces have arrived.

Despite the opportunity in Somalia, the United States and European Union (EU) have been slow to act. The United States and EU must do everything they can to encourage African countries to contribute forces and assist in the African Union peacekeeping force's rapid deployment through immediate and sustained financial assistance, as well as logistical support. Furthermore, the United States should continue to support the African Union's overall development, in addition to the development of other similar regional organizations around the world. All of these organizations are effective tools at maintaining peace and stability.

Fourth, the United States must take into account the political ramifications of any military action. There is a significant fear that these strikes will create hostility and increase suspicion among the Somali people toward the United States. This reaction could then undercut the transitional government, as it would be seen as a U.S. puppet. Part of what precipitated the ascendancy of the Islamists in Somalia was the CIA's support of unpopular warlords. It is therefore essential that military strikes are taken on the basis of rock-solid intelligence and conducted with as much delicacy as possible. Military action that is taken indiscriminately and/or misses the intended target can cause more harm than good.

Ultimately, the victories of foreign military or targeted air strikes will not resolve the deep-seated conflicts that have plagued Somalia during the last 15 years. The military success has opened a window of opportunity, but hard work remains to ensure that Somalia, long the most-failed of the world's failed states, eventually rejoins the community of nations.