The 14 Somali faction leaders who reached agreement after a week of forced negotiation in Ethiopia agreed on little. Their newfound commitment to cease-fire, disarmament and national reconciliation talks is commendable, but not reliable. What they continue to disagree about is whether Mohamed Farah Aideed or Mohammed Ali Mahdi or neither of the above will be top dog in the unified country to be created. And that's what the fighting was about as soon as the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre fell two years ago. Since the invitation list for the reconciliation talks scheduled for March is not settled, nothing is settled.
The agreement is a tribute to the mediation of Ethiopia's President Meles Zenawi. He, also, is a rebel against a toppled dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam. Mr. Meles, a Marxist from Tigre, is like the Somalis a provincial figure who must still establish credibility with his whole country. His Ethiopian enemy, Mengistu, helped all the Somali rebels who are now at each other's throats. Mr. Meles' interest in stability for Somalia is its relationship to a more stable Ethiopia.
What this suggests is that the role of foreign peace-keepers -- whether Americans or international successors -- will remain crucial to Somalia for a long time. Without their forceful presence, this fragile negotiating process would not go forward. U.S. Marine success in seizing weapons caches near Mogadishu is heartening, but clans and gangsters will have little trouble obtaining more. A lot of Ethiopia's weapons also vanished, after the collapse of Mengistu, and a lot of them are now crossing the border for remarkably small sums. Other arms are moving from Kenya, which has a substantial population of Somalis.
The success of the feeding operation is also heartening. Farming nearly died in the past two years of civil war in Somalia, a country formerly self-sufficient in food. But one ill effect of the humanitarian aid is that the market vanished for the produce of whatever farming survived. There are farmers with corn they cannot sell because customers are getting theirs free. The aid groups that dispense food should consider buying local food on the open market, simply to maintain agriculture until it can resume feeding the population. The last thing any country extending aid should want to do is destroy Somali agriculture.
So far, though, the talks in Ethiopia have set a timetable for more talks, not for the withdrawal of American troops.