Seven Questions: War in Somalia

Somalia is the only country in the world without a functioning government. Fighting between Islamic militias and the remnants of a U.N.-backed national government threatens to leave half a million people stranded and engulf much of the Horn of Africa in war. FP sat down with Ken Menkhaus, a leading scholar on Somalia who has just returned from the region.

Source: BBC News Losing control: The Transitional Federal Government holds a shrinking amount of territory.

FOREIGN POLICY: How likely is an all-out war in Somalia, and how long could such a conflict last?

Ken Menkhous: The situation is extremely serious. The two sides have been sparring over the last few weeks. This morning, there were clashes between the two sides outside the provisional capital, Baidoa. The Council of Islamic Courts on the one side, and Ethiopia and the transitional federal government on the other, have been preparing for war, building up arms and logistical supplies. At this point, we can expect probably a protracted, inconclusive armed conflict in southern and central Somalia. This could go on for a long time. Neither the Ethiopians nor the Islamists has the ability to deliver a knockout punch. The only way this armed conflict will be short is if each side is trying to send a signal to the other. In other words, they bloody each others noses, then step back and assess the very high risks to both sides, and someone steps in to mediate. Barring that, the most likely scenario is protracted conflict that could spread to parts of Ethiopia and Kenya.

FP: How much of the country is controlled by the Council of Islamic Courts versus the Transitional Federal Government?

KM: The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) controls almost no territory. It holds the provisional capital of Baidoa, barely, and some of the hinterland between Baidoa and Ethiopia. The Courts now control all of Southern Somalia, from the Kenyan border to Mogadishu up to the central Somali town of Galcaio. North of that, the nonsecessionist semiautonomous state of Puntland has yet to join the Courts. So if you include the secessionist state of Somaliland in the northwest, the Courts control more than 50 percent of Somali territory.

FP: Are the Courts controlled by al Qaeda?

KM: No. Absolutely not. There is a legitimate debate over whether a small number of leaders in the Islamic Courts have linkages with a small number of leaders from al Qaeda. Thats not the same as saying that the two are in a deeply intrinsic partnership. The problem that the Courts face is that they are not by any stretch a unified movement. Its an umbrella group that includes moderates, hard-line salafists, and jihadists. And a small number of jihadists can do an enormous amount of damage and can bring in elements from outside that create a whole new level of security problems.

FP: How serious of a humanitarian crisis would ensue if war broke out, something along the scale of Darfur?

KM: Theres already a very serious humanitarian crisis in Somalia and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya due to the heavy flooding that has occurred there. In Somalia alone, there are 500,000 people displaced due to the flooding. The humanitarian agencies are facing the perfect storm right now in southern Somaliaimpassable roads due to the flooding, armed conflict breaking out between Somalia and Ethiopia which will ground U.N. helicopters once the war starts, and the unspecified threat of jihadist violence directed at any United Nations, Western, or American agency, emanating from Mogadishu. Its different from Darfur, but the scale is very large. Darfur is a manmade crisis, and its an ongoing one that is incredibly difficult to access. In Somalia, for the moment, the biggest crisis is a natural disaster, the flooding. The problem is that access to those in need is complicated by the imminent threat of war, in which humanitarian workers could become the principal targets for small groups of jihadists. So the immediate threat to the 500,000 people whove been displaced by the flooding is very serious.

FP: How is involvement by Eritrea and Ethiopia feeding the conflict?

KM: Somalia has become a proxy war in the region. Eritrea is using the Islamic Courts to try to bog Ethiopia down in a quagmire. They have provided arms and training to the Courts. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is involved in Somalia and has troops there, in large part because it views the rise of the Courts as a very dangerous security threat on a number of levels. One is the prospect of having a radical Islamist movement controlling Somalia. Ethiopia is country which splits roughly 50-50 between Muslims and Christians and doesnt want a radical Islamist movement on its borders. More immediately, the Courts have made claims to Somali-inhabited territory in eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. This is unacceptable to Ethiopia. As long as the Courts are making these claims, Ethiopia will view their ascendance to power as a security threat.

FP: What is your assessment of the U.S. response so far?

Stringer/AFP The threat: Fighters are defecting to the Council of Islamic Courts, which controls Mogadishu.

KM: Since June, when the courts defeated the Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, the U.S.-backed militia force, the U.S. has done a few things that were helpful to Somalia but which did not get much recognition from Somalis. Like most other countries shaping international policy toward Somalia, the United States has faced only bad choices and has not known what to do. The obvious position that the U.S. and others have taken has been to call for dialogue between the Islamists and the Transitional Federal Government to create a national unity government in which there is power sharing. None of the hard-liners in Ethiopia, in the TFG, or the Courts appear interested in that outcome. But talks may be the only window of opportunity to avoid war.

FP: Why would the Courts agree to a brokered deal that reconstitutes the TFG and reduces their power?

KM: Some people argue that the prospects of a negotiated settlement are nil, that the Courts have nothing to gain. They are already in a position of tremendous power within Somalia. They are the strongest military and political force by a long margin. They win in a stalemate. Along the same lines, some argue that Ethiopia has no interest in seeing a government of national unity that would be seen as a Trojan horse for the Islamists. On the other hand, the window of opportunity for a negotiated settlement does exist, because the risks of war are so high for both sides that there is some reason to believe that both sides would like to avoid war. For Ethiopia, the threat is a quagmire in Somalia with very few reliable local allies. The threat of jihad will expand into Ethiopia and will attract a lot of foreign elements who see the largely Christian-dominated government there oppressing lowland Muslim populations. Ethiopia also has to worry about its northern flank with Eritrea. For the Islamists, the danger is that they are about to take on one of sub-Saharan Africas largest and most seasoned militariesa military that will, in degrees, have some backing from the worlds only superpower. Thats very dangerous and they have a lot to lose. If the war is protracted, most of the casualties and humanitarian suffering will be borne by the Somali people, and the Courts would be held accountable for dragging Somalia into an unnecessary war.

Ken Menkhaus is associate professor of political science at Davidson College and a former special advisor to the U.N. operation in Somalia.