Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Forgotten Somalia: A Progressive Strategy

By Rayhan Haque

Today, whenever people hear or think about international affairs, immediately what springs to mind is the recent war in Gaza, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Russia-Ukrainian energy crisis, and or Iran. There is absolutely no doubting that these issues are the most pressing and important concerns for the international community. It would be an affront to global institutions and notions of internationalism for these problems not to receive the highest priority and focus. However, one other issue that deserves parallel importance, is Somalia. This country is in a colossal state; riven by years of civil conflict and anarchy, radical Islamism and mass piracy have been left to breed and fester freely. With the recent withdrawal of the Ethiopian army, vast parts of the capital Mogadishu and the political centre, the town of Baidoa, have been captured by the radical al-Shabab Islamic militants. Whatever control the transitional federal government had, has now virtually evaporated. With an Ethiopian military return unlikely and the presence of only a weak African Union peacekeeping force, the al-Shabab militants hold over southern Somalia and key positions will grow stronger.

There may be some hope, as the UN brokered peace talks in Djibouti, agreed a new parliament including previous opposition forces, and elected a new President, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, from the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS). His job now will be to lead a new government and attempt to bring law and order to Somalia. That will not be an easy feat, as Somalia has not been a united country since 1991. This is a critical phase now, as anything short of success, may relegate Somalia into a full-blown civil war and territorial split. But the international community can play a vital role, and in particular, Britain, in ensuring that the transitional government have some means and capability of bringing peace to the country and fighting back the al-Shabab militants. This can be achieved through a 'soft interventionist' policy. Rather than sending British military forces, which would be as counter-productive as they are unfeasible, the British government should send a special military unit to train and build up the fragile Somalian army. A small international commitment of military aid, coupled with British army expertise and training, would allow the Somalian government to hire new recruits into the national armed forces.

There are several reasons why this would be an effective strategy. Firstly, it would ensure the deployment of national troops throughout the country. This is very important, as the opposition forces have been able to prosper by stoking and feeding off the national hostility that exists for foreign forces in Somalia. Prior to their departure, the presence of Ethiopian troops was incredibly unpopular in the country, so any further foreign military deployment would serve to only strengthen the hands of the radical Islamists. Funding and training the Somalian army would also weaken the profligacy of piracy currently taking place off the coastal waters. The allure of a stable, paid, and importantly, legal job would be an attractive option to many people who have entered the piracy world. And wi th their experience of weaponry and daring missions out in the sea's, the deserters could make effective soldiers. The third reason why this strategy should be adopted, is that there exists a regional precedent. The British army for the past few months, has been training and developing the Congolese national military forces, and if recent events are anything to go by, the strategy appears to be working. But the most important reason behind this approach, is that it would allow an overstretched British army to still engage effectively with far flung international crises that have major implications for the global community. The United States of America has a military base in nearby Djibouti and have already shown an interest in addressing the Somalian crisis. And with a new American administration, this emollient strategy for Somalia could be one of Barrack Obama's and Gordon Brown's first joint international operations to demonstrate to the world, the new progressive internationalism of the posh-Bush era.

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