Lawmakers Weigh Involvement in Somalia's Future

The long-running scenes in Somalia of politically indistinct tribes with armed militias, raging poverty and ongoing violence could persist for generations to come unless the United States acts now with financial assistance and regional alliances to help affirm the transitional government's fragile control, say advocates in and outside of the U.S.

"We need to stabilize the region; we need to have security and cooperation and investment in infrastructure," said Daahir Mireh Jibreel, a foreign ministry secretary with the Transitional Federal Government of the Somali Republic.

Jibreel, who was on Capitol Hill this month to drum up support for his country, told that the threat of an Islamic militant takeover of his country is very real but with the help of Ethiopian forces and support of the international community, Somalia is well on its way to having its first functioning, central government in 15 years.

"We have the potential you could never imagine," Jibreel said.

But others warn that like 1993, when U.S soldiers were attacked in the capital city of Mogadishu in the infamous "Black Hawk Down" incident, Americans are unpopular in Somalia and recent air strikes targeting alleged Al Qaeda terrorists there have probably made hostilities worse.

"Perception is everything here. And the perception was, once again, the U.S was interfering in Somalia," said Dave Hartwell, Africa specialist for Jane's Information Group, an international intelligence and analysis firm.

Any assistance now must be done with careful diplomacy, observers say, keeping in mind that the political players of today may not be the leaders of Somalia tomorrow.

"Unfortunately, I don't see the TFG going anywhere," said Ken Menkhaus, an African political expert at Davidson College in North Carolina who described roiling clan tensions and the interim government's lack of legitimacy as barriers to a successful Somalia.

However in the long-term, "I'm hopeful," he said.

The long-term is the range that lawmakers and State Department officials are banking on.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., announced during a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week, that he and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn, are drafting comprehensive legislation to address the Somalia issue. The measure would not only include financial assistance but aid in building democracy there and continuing counter-terrorism efforts in the region.

"The coming months are a time for action," he said, "to authorize and appropriate funds, to conduct rigorous oversight to ensure that this administration takes a balanced and comprehensive approach, and to authorize activities that will help our government and the international community organize effectively to address instability in Somalia."

The State Department appears to be in agreement. At the same event, Assistant Secretary Jendayi Frazer said she has personally traveled to the region and has met with representatives of the TFG, the African Union and regional leaders to discuss how the U.S can help bolster the new government and create stability in Somalia.

So far, the United States has pledged an initial $40 million in assistance and is supporting the immediate deployment of an African-led peacekeeping force to the country, Frazer said.

"The United States believes that the key to long-term stability in Somalia now lies in a process of inclusive dialogue and reconciliation," she said. "The leaders of the TFG must serve as symbols of that process."

Too Little Too Late?

The U.S. relationship with Somalia has been all but dormant since 1993 when the attacks on U.S. forces drove humanitarian efforts away and the country descended into more than a decade without a central government.

Renewed interest came only when it seemed that Islamic militants had moved into the region and reportedly infiltrated the local leadership of the Islamic Courts Union — an umbrella organization of Sharia-based judicial institutions throughout the country.

"The reason the U.S. hasn’t written (Somalia) off is the terrorist angle," said Hartwell. "The U.S recognizes that a stable Somalia — and the U.S would define a stable Somalia as one without the Islamic courts in power — contributes to regional security and that would contribute to achieving international security."

The Islamic courts have grown in power over the last year, crippling any ability by the TFG — created in 2004 under the auspices of the regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development — to govern in Mogadishu or have any real authority over much of the country.

While some of the local courts were accused of harsh, Taliban-like treatment of the population, the ICU was to some degree credited with bringing a semblance of law and order as well as social services to the people. Disputes continue over how much of the ICU was dominated by extremists. Reports neither confirmed nor denied by officials suggested that the United States was backing a coalition of warlords against the ICU last year.

Nevertheless, after the ICU took Mogadishu from the warlords in June and continued military buildups in other key cities, alarming Somali's neighbors, reports ensued that foreign extremists were moving into the country to help the ICU to expand.

In a move supported by the United States and the TFG, in December, Ethiopian forces entered Somalia's borders and routed the ICU from Mogadishu. Shortly afterward, on Jan. 10, the U.S. bombed a remote part of Somalia, targeting suspects from the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya. The three primary suspects were believed to have not been killed in the air strikes though other Al Qaeda-related terrorists were taken out, U.S. officials said..

Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., chairman of the Africa Subcommittee of the House International Relations, said Washington should have been involved in supporting democracy efforts long before it came down to the issue of counter-terrorism.

"For the past five or six years I've been trying to get the U.S to pay attention to Somalia," said Payne, who is expected to introduce legislation in the House that would guarantee financial assistance and other supports for Somalia. He said his previous attempts to pass such legislation all failed. "I think we botched a real opportunity … I guess we had other priorities."

Limited Window of Opportunity

Feingold said he is hopeful the United States can "make an aggressive, sustained effort to bring about a real transition to peace in Somalia."

"In fact, it has become increasingly evident that we only have a small — and I think quickly closing — window of opportunity to act," Feingold, D-Wis., said.

That narrow window is all the more reason for the United States to play a good-faith role in helping to establish peace in Somalia now, said Princeton Lyman, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and South Africa and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"I think we have to play a role," Lyman said. "We are a player in what happened and if we don't play a role I think it could get out of hand."

Jibreel said he believes the TFG is leading a good-faith effort to bring all interested parties together for peace. He played down the clan tensions in Mogadishu and the prospects of an insurgency from militias or ICU remnants.

"I’m not underestimating the odds we face," he said, but he is confident an accord can be reached with clan leaders and the "thousands" of militia fighters can be re-integrated into the population.

But Menkhaus points out that retaliatory attacks against the unpopular Ethiopian forces are ongoing. The TFG has also been criticized for cracking down on the media, imposing martial law and refusing to include moderate ICU leaders in negotiations.

"There are far more people who oppose (the TFG) than support it and it won’t be able to stay in the capital until it reaches some sort of accord to stay there," he said. "Whether they are intending to or not, they are propelling the country into a showdown."