In the Quicksands of Somalia

Where Doing Less Helps More

Somali refugees run from the dust at Ifo camp near Dadaab, about 80km (50 miles) from Liboi on the border with Somalia in north-eastern Kenya, January 8, 2007. Radu Sigheti / Reuters

The U.S. government needs to change its Somalia policy -- and fast. For the better part of two decades, instability and violence have confounded U.S. and international efforts to bring peace to Somalia. The international community's repeated attempts to create a government have failed, even backfired. The United States' efforts since 9/11 to prevent Somalia from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda have alienated large parts of the Somali population, polarized the country's diverse Islamist reform movement into moderate and extremist camps, and propelled indigenous Salafi jihadist groups to power. One of these groups, a radical youth militia known as al Shabab, now controls most of Somalia's southern half and has established links with al Qaeda. The brutal occupation of Somalia by its historical rival Ethiopia from late 2006 to early 2009, which Washington openly supported, only fueled the insurgency and infuriated Somalis across the globe.

One of Washington's concerns today is that al Qaeda may be trying to develop a base somewhere in Somalia from which to launch attacks outside the country. Another is that more and more alienated members of the Somali diaspora might embrace terrorism, too. Somali nationals were arrested in Minnesota in early 2009 after returning from fighting alongside al Shabab, and in August 2009, two Somalis were arrested in Melbourne for planning a major suicide attack on an Australian army installation. The first American ever to carry out a suicide bombing did so in Somalia in October 2008. These isolated incidents have generated more hype than they deserve, but they have nonetheless put the Obama administration in a tough position. If only to avoid seeming weak in combating terrorism, it must prevent these threats from escalating, but it is entering the fray at a time when almost any international action in Somalia is likely to reinforce the Somalis' anti-Western posture.

Alarmingly, the State Department seems not to realize this or the failures of past policy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is clinging to the bankrupt strategy of supporting the

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