More troops for Somalia ignores lessons of 'Black Hawk Down,' is not a solution, experts say

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — It's been almost two decades since U.S troops were forced out of Somalia after the "Black Hawk Down" battle. Troops from neighboring Ethiopia spent more than two years trying to restore order before withdrawing last year. Now, the U.S. is backing a push by African states to add troops to combat Somali militants.

But Somalia experts who have watched violence spin in circles for nearly 20 years are warning that more troops will not bring peace, and will encounter fierce resistance from the dangerous militant group that claimed deadly twin bombings in Uganda last month.

Last week African heads of state who met in the Ugandan capital — the site of the July 11 blasts that killed 76 people watching the World Cup final on TV — pledged to add 4,000 new troops in Mogadishu. Those troops will add to the 6,000 peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi now stationed in Somalia's capital to protect the transitional government there.

Somalia has been mired in chaos since warlords overthrew the country's autocratic president in 1991. While few good answers have been found to end near-continuous violence, analysts say the solution does not lie in sending foreign troops to battle the country's most dangerous militant group, al-Shabab.

"African leaders are daydreaming. You can't solve Somalia's problems by sending in more troops," said Zakaria Mohamud Haji Abdi of the Alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia, a group established to oppose Ethiopia's recent foray into Somalia. "With its devastating effects, the culture of using military might has been tried but failed. Now it is the time to nurture the culture of dialogue."

Violence in Somalia has raged for so long that the conflict rarely grabs the world's attention. Somalia's U.N.-backed transitional government has made little progress expanding its power or winning over the Somali people.

But the July bombings focused renewed attention on the Horn of Africa nation. The U.S. pledged to financially support any newly deployed African Union troops. Uganda, angered by the attacks, sought an increased mandate for troops to hunt down terrorists.

"A guerrilla war is rarely won militarily. A political solution should be envisioned," said Roland Marchal, a Somalia expert at the Center for International Studies and Research in Paris.

"This does not mean by itself a cease-fire or the wish to get a power-sharing agreement with al-Shabab. But one should move from the current context where progresses are measured by an increased number of trained soldiers and militants killed," he said.

Somalis, even those from different clans and ideological affiliations, are known to unite when foreign troops arrive. Al-Shabab recently vowed that new AU troops will be "annihilated." The militant group also urged Somalis to fight the peacekeepers.

The U.S. sent troops to Somalia in the early 1990s but withdrew shortly after the military battle chronicled in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." Ethiopia sent forces over the border in late 2006, but withdrew them in early 2009 claiming they had defeated al-Shabab, a growing militant force that now counts militants from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts among its ranks.

Today the Somali government is confined to a small slice of Mogadishu, and al-Shabab attacks are encroaching in on the government's foothold. But al-Shabab is unlikely to topple the thousands of well-armed AU troops there.

Analysts say the stalemate should be used to kick-start a locally driven reconciliation that allows Somalis to find peace, like administrations in two northern regions — Somaliland and Puntland — did in the 1990s.

Marchal recommends establishing a panel of senior Muslim politicians and Westerners who can try to coax the militants into a reconciliation conference. He says the current transitional government is not the right channel for reconciliation.

Kisiangani Emmanuel, a researcher at the South Africa-based Institute for Global Dialogue, said the international community needs to signal a willingness to accept any government that is acceptable to Somalis — including insurgents — regardless of the affiliations of its leaders.

"Military approaches have only helped to radicalize more youths and exacerbate fundamentalism in Somalia," he said. "The international community needs to realize that its current and previous policies on Somalia have largely strengthened religious extremism and Somalis' distrust of the West."