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Another Lesson from the ‘War on Terror’

In March, Tom Porteous warned: ‘Somalia's current predicament provides yet more compelling evidence that if the West is to win its war on terrorism it needs to engage with Islamists, not seek to eliminate them.’ Here is his update.

In Somali terms, the military victory of the Islamic Courts militia in the battle for Mogadishu is a political earthquake as significant and consequential as the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections earlier this year. It also presents the United States and its allies with a similarly clear-cut policy choice.

The choice is this: engage with Somalia's Islamists on the grounds that they are now a crucial political force in Somalia and offer the best chance in years for peace and the reconstruction of a Somali state; or, continue to oppose them and condemn Somalia to more years of violence and absence of government in which terrorism and extremism will thrive.

The capture of Mogadishu marks the emergence of Somalia's Islamists as a primary national political force in the country. It is also now clear that the success or failure of current European and Kenyan backed efforts to reconstruct a peaceful, unified Somali state will depend on the cooperation and inclusion of the Islamists -- something which the sponsors of the peace effort have so far not been prepared to face up to.

In recent years, the Islamists have proved to be the only political movement in Somalia with a genuine national project for state reconstruction. They have also won popular support and legitimacy as the only group willing and able to provide viable and reliable social services, security and justice in the absence of a government or significant international engagement. Somalia's other political movements represent little more than narrow and corrupt clan and personal interests and they have been discredited by the opportunistic and violent behaviour of their leaders. Few doubt that the Islamists will play a dominant role, perhaps the dominant role, in any credible and representative future government.

Until now the United States and its regional allies have sought to marginalise and eliminate the Islamists on grounds of their association with terrorists. Ethiopia, the key US ally in the Horn of Africa, has done much of the dirty work on Washington's behalf. It has sent its troops into Somalia on several occasions since the mid 1990s to dislodge and destroy Islamic militant groups. And in 2001 it organised and financed a coalition of warlords to scotch a regional effort to form a Somali government because of the fears the embryonic administration was under the influence of Islamists.

After 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan Somalia became the focus of US attention as a possible alternative home for Al-Qaeda. These fears have not been realised. The number of known Islamist terrorists tracked to Somalia is actually relatively small. But Somalia has nonetheless been the target of numerous harsh counter-terrorism measures, mostly planned from the military run US counter-terrorism outfit set up after 9/11 in neighbouring Djibouti. In the recent battle for Mogadishu, the CIA was almost certainly backing the coalition of warlords, the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, which has now been defeated by the Islamic Courts militia.

This whole strategy has now badly backfired -- and illustrates once again the poverty of US strategic thinking on how to deal with Islamism. As in the Palestinian territories (and in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Iraq for that matter) the United States' focus on security and terrorism in Somalia, together with the ideological orthodoxies of its "war on terror," has led Washington to ignore the complex politics of the country and helped to empower the very same political forces (i.e., the Islamists) it aimed to marginalise or eliminate. It is now reported that US officials who pointed out the shortcomings of US strategy in Somalia were told to shut up or posted elsewhere.

If the United States and its allies continue to thwart the nationalist aims and ambitions of the mainstream Islamist movement in Somalia, it is likely that this will continue to push Somalis towards acceptance of more extremist views, groups and methods. And because of the large number of Somali refugees in Europe and elsewhere, this would have repercussions well beyond Somalia's borders.

Somalia shows yet again that the United States badly needs a strategy to deal with political Islam that moves beyond containment or confrontation. Such a strategy would accept the need to engage with and accommodate mainstream Islamists as a means not only of drawing the sting of Islamist extremism and terrorism but also of addressing the political and social problems of so called "failed states" in the Muslim world like Somalia, Afghanistan and Palestine.

A Somali government dominated by Islamists may not be everyone's cup of tea. Inevitably the chronic violence of Somalia in recent years has bred a fair degree of religious extremism -- again the parallels here with Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are striking. But a government that included Islamists would be a lot better for Somalis, for the region and probably for the United States than no government at all. Supporting the emergence of such a government through the current EU sponsored peace process, which makes the Islamists both responsible and accountable, is the only viable strategy on the horizon.

But US engagement with and acceptance of the Islamists has a cost: compromise and accommodation. As elsewhere Islamists have won credibility and legitimacy in Somalia because they propose serious solutions to domestic political and social problems, and because they articulate popular anger at the coercive policies of the United States and its allies in the Muslim world.

Is Washington ready to listen, to learn and to adjust its policies in Somalia and elsewhere? Probably not yet. But a few more setbacks in the war on terror and that may change. The alternative is for the United States to slip further into confrontation and war with an increasingly (and justifiably) angry Muslim world.

Tom Porteous is a syndicated columnist and author, formerly with the BBC and the British Foreign Office

The opinions contained in this article are solely those of the writer, and in no way, form or shape represent the editorial opinions of "Hiiraan Online"



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