Monday, May 29, 2006

Cold War Redux in Somalia

Recent press coverage has highlighted an open secret in the regional politics of Eastern Africa: the renewed involvement of the U.S. in the civil conflict in Somalia. Fighting now rages in the capital city of Mogadishu between Islamist militias and a coalition of warlords calling itself the "Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism." This latter "Alliance" contains many of the same elements that were responsible for the killing of US soldiers during the "Black Hawk Down" incident of 1993. Ironically there is strong evidence to suggest that the current "Alliance" is formed and backed covertly by the US and its CIA.

The motivation of the Bush administration to undertake such a policy is clear- they are concerned about the growing influence of Al Qaeda among the Islamic militias fighting to control Mogadishu. This is indeed a troubling reality, but it does not warrant a tactic so callous and short-sighted as the backing of a warlord "Alliance." Despite being the regime to usher the US into the 21st century, the Bush administration does not seem able to get past the stale, calcified strategic and political doctrines of the Cold War. The Bush White House seems to feel that the "war on terror" may be conducted in the same manner as the Cold War, wherever Al Qaeda's influence is perceived the US may enlist proxy agents to contend against it, irrespective of the larger political, diplomatic, or moral context.

Such a strategy is doubly foolish in that it never served well even during the Cold War. Innumerable US policies would have been better conducted if American leaders had had the imagination and insight to treat local conflicts as unique events rather than jamming them into the "one size fits all" mold of US-Soviet geopolitics. This truth applies even more urgently to the current case of the struggle against Al Qaeda. Political Islam is an even more variable and diverse phenomenon than global Communism was, it will be even more counterproductive and self-injurious to adopt a rigid and doctrinaire approach toward fighting it on an international scale.

Supporting a warlord "Alliance" in Mogadishu is exactly the kind of penny-wise and pound-foolish policy that helped exacerbate the problem of Al Qaeda as the 20th century drew to a close. Yes, the warlords may help staunch the influence of Al Qaeda somewhat in the short term. But in the long view Al Qaeda will emerge stronger from such a conflict and the warlord "Alliance" itself will mushroom into a force with destructive potential that far outweighs the immediate "benefits" they provide now. Just as the US must regret enlisting Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as proxies against the Soviets in Afghanistan, America will surely regret having armed and funded the Somali "Alliance to Promote Peace and Counterterrorism."

The Bush administration is no doubt resorting to this expediency because the interim government in Somalia is too weak to counter the influence of Al Qaeda on its own. This is not only rank hypocrisy, however, but is also poor strategy. If the threat of Al Qaeda is so grave as to justify any alliance of convenience why depose Saddam Hussein rather than fund and arm him against Bin Laden? Any hope of success in the "war on terror" does not lie in short-sighted tactics as are being pursued in Mogadishu. If the government of Somalia is too weak to resist Al Qaeda the US must commit to a long, hard project of economic, social, and military "nation-building" (hopefully in coalition with many international partners) in order to lay the foundations of peace, prosperity and order. In Mogadishu the Bush regime is diplaying the impatience and contempt for the task of "nation building" that Bush himself expressed in his first election campaign and which has hampered reconstruction efforts in Iraq. The US needs leaders with real vision who have the courage to make hard choices and pursue long-term policies, even if they are unpopular in the political short-term.

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