Chaos in Somalia, again

The African country of Somalia is a place of great suffering. In the mid-2000s, an unfortunate series of events resulted in an depressingly familiar repeat of the events of the 1991-1995 civil war.

That initial civil war resulted in an ill-fated and destablizing U.N. intervention that was quickly abandoned. After the U.N. and the West abandoned Somalia, the country pretty much muddled along in poverty and low-level fighting for a decade as various ethnic clans tried to jostle for power.

The Rise of the Islamic Courts

In the mid-2000s, Somalia faced a scenario much like Afghanistan did a decade earlier. In a land divided by clan and permeated with crime, corruption and poverty, people began to turn to religion as a unifying force capable of restoring order.

A loose group of Islamic militants, called the Islamic Courts, rapidly grew in power, and in 2006 solidified control over most of the country, in much the same way the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan.

For a short while, it looked like some semblance of peace and order might return to Somalia.

The intervention

There was, of course, a major difference between Afghanistan in the early 1990s and Somalia in the early 2000s: the West's view of Islam.

No one much cared when the Taliban consolidated control of Afghanistan, but amid the U.S. "war on terror," Western nations viewed the rise of Islamic militants in Somalia with deep alarm. It is worth noting that al-Qaida had a strong presence in Somalia in the early 1990s, was involved in the resistance against the U.N. intervention there, and probably has some small presence within the Islamic Courts.

Because of the failure of the initial U.N. intervention, and the U.S. not being in a position to pick another fight, a direct Western intervention in Somalia was not in the cards. Another -- less obvious -- way had to be found.

Western governments generally recognized what they called the "transitional government" as the "official" government of Somalia. This was a small, ragtag bunch of incompetents who by late 2006 controlled only a single city.

In late 2006, Ethiopia -- a historical rival of Somalia -- began providing military support to the transitional government, with Western countries remaining remarkably silent. In early 2007, Ethopian troops invaded Somalia in large numbers.

The insurgency

The Ethiopian troops quickly ousted the Islamic Courts militia, seizing control of major cities. The African Union agreed to send "peacekeeping troops" to protect the transitional government if Ethiopian troops left.

The Islamic Courts quickly changed gears and became an insurgency, conducting guerrilla attacks. More than a thousand people have been killed this year in clashes between the rival factions.

In March 2007, about 1,400 to 1,700 African Union troops from Uganda were deployed to the Somali capital of Mogadishu. Not until May did some of those troops leave their barracks to make a few small patrols, not a promising sign of the AU's capabilities.

As of May 2007, Ethiopia says that it has withdrawn two-thirds of its troops, with the remainder to leave when the AU provides its full promised force of 8,000 troops.

The outlook

The Islamic Courts is well-entrenched and capable of conducting guerrilla attacks for the foreseeable future.

Ethiopia, which has fought two border wars with Somalia before, is widely disliked by the general Somali population. The African Union is not a particularly capable force, and it is questionable whether they can even provide the troops they have promised, much less keep the peace in Somalia. The transitional government is essentially powerless by itself.

The West is likely to continue providing support, directly or indirectly, to the transitional government as long as militant Islam has a presence in the country.

The combination of these factors does not bode well for the long-suffering Somali people.

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