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A new Taliban in Somalia? Not yet


WASHINGTON -- For the first time in 15 years, Mogadishu is ruled by one faction.

This time, it is not one of the many warlords who have dominated its neighborhoods since Somalia officially collapsed in 1991, but rather the city is now under the control of the Islamic courts. These courts are run by a mix of Islamic fundamentalists and conservative clan-based Islamic leaders who want to establish strict Sharia law in Mogadishu, and will likely want to spread their power beyond the former capital.

Why have the Islamic courts been successful? The answer transcends military might.

First, they have increased public support by delivering social services, Hamas-style, through a number of Islamic charities.

Second, they have benefited from Somali perceptions that the U.S. government is anti-Islam, demonstrated by its alleged support for the loose affiliation of warlords fighting the Islamic militias, one that calls itself the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism.

This virtual alliance is one of expediency, hastily pulled together in order to garner American support for what is essentially a local political fight for control of Mogadishu; there is probably no Somali-language term for this alliance. If external funding for the warlords disappeared overnight, so too would this alliance.

The U.S. government worries about an extreme Islamic state being established in Somalia, one that might link up with al-Qaida. Yet supporting the warlords is not the way to prevent this outcome. The U.S. government learned this lesson during the U.N. days in Somalia. The warlords failed to deliver their constituencies then, and they will fail to do so again today.

Moreover, fears of an Islamic state in Somalia are not new. This was a concern in the mid-1990s. At that time, the Islamists were defeated militarily by a combination of Somali and Ethiopian forces.

A more strategic approach, which in turn would help Somalis build an accountable and decentralized state, requires a different focus, one that supports civil society, promotes the rule of law and helps the Somalis themselves root out the handful of extremists that use Somalia for sanctuary, weapons transshipment and other illegal activity.

The United States should build on its successful support of the peace process in Sudan and apply its full weight to bolster and empower the transitional federal government, agreed to by Somalis from all clans over a year ago.

The prospects for such a strategy are more encouraging than most Americans realize. Somalia is populated primarily by moderate Muslims. It has a strong civil society and an incredibly vibrant private sector. It is neither a black hole nor the Mad Max society depicted by the media, but rather a country of sharp contrasts.

One is the static and depressing Somalia, familiar to American television viewers, in which large pockets of the population live in extreme poverty. The United Nations estimates that far too many Somalis suffer from grave human rights violations, chronic drought, food insecurity and sporadic violence, all of which inhibits development and prevents international aid workers from accessing many parts of the country.

In humanitarian and development terms, official indicators place Somalia at the bottom of all human development indices - including life expectancy, adult literacy, school enrollment, infant mortality, per capita income and malnutrition.

But there is also an extremely dynamic Somalia few outsiders appreciate. For example, in many parts of Somalia, electricity lights up the streets at night (a service sadly lacking in most of neighboring Kenya), while the mobile telephone network is the cheapest in East Africa, and one of the continent's most competitive.

Somalis from the diaspora remit funds into Somalia at a lower cost and faster rate than most other money transfer services worldwide, both formal and informal. A Somali's $250 sent from Galveston, Texas, for example, will arrive at the door of her mother's house in Galkaayo in northeast Somalia 12 hours later, and the transfer fee will be lower than that charged by Western Union or Citibank.

Mogadishu has schools providing elementary, secondary and even tertiary education, as well as television stations, hospitals and medical clinics and even a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Hargeisa has car insurance, Internet cafes, hotels and restaurants, and several Somali airlines operate scheduled services throughout the country. All are private, Somali-run businesses.

Somalia has not fallen into the abyss since the state collapsed precisely because of the efforts of Somalis themselves - both in the diaspora and in Somalia.

The tight Somali social networks, based on close ties of clan and kinship, have been critical to the survival of Somalis and Somalia. And if in recent weeks Somalis have been protesting alleged U.S. interference in the fighting in Mogadishu, it is not only because of perceptions that the U.S. government is anti-Islam but also because they don't want the warlords to be any stronger than they already are.

Despite assertions to the contrary, the U.S. government has not prioritized state-building in Somalia. Rather, it gave up on Somalia after the 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in October 1993. Since then, and similar to Iraq, U.S. intelligence-gathering capacity throughout the country has been extremely limited. It's time to take a different approach, one that supports Somali energy rather than saps it.

Karin von Hippel, a political adviser to the representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Somalia in 1998 and 1999, is the co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Her e-mail is kvonhippel@csis.org.

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