[dehai-news] NEWSWEEK.Com: An Unclenched Fist - Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to bring something resembling stability to Africa's Horn.

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From: Berhane Habtemariam (Berhane.Habtemariam@gmx.de)
Date: Sun Jan 25 2009 - 06:29:32 EST

An Unclenched Fist

Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to bring something resembling
stability to Africa's Horn.

&sortDirection=descending&sortField=pubdatetime&offset=0&pageSize=10> Scott
Johnson | NEWSWEEK

Published Jan 24, 2009


As a state, <http://www.newsweek.com/related.aspx?subject=Somalia> Somalia
has racked up more failures than any other on the planet. So said Susan
Rice, soon to be
<http://www.newsweek.com/related.aspx?subject=Barack+Obama> Barack Obama's
United Nations ambassador, in a Brookings Institution report she coauthored
last year. Since then, Somalia's troubles have only worsened: 1.3 million
internally displaced people roam the country scavenging for food; the
president quit last month; and hard-line Islamist militias, having already
taken control of Somalia's south and central regions, now stand poised to
tighten their grip on the capital, Mogadishu. Some 10,000 innocent civilians
have been killed since January 2007, pirates are terrorizing the coasts, and
last month Somalia entered its 19th year without a functioning government.
In many ways, Somalia is hardly a state at all.

But as a foreign-policy initiative, Somalia's problems offer Obama a unique
chance to sketch a bold path forward in the region. After the Bush
administration backed the Ethiopian invasion in 2006, helping to overthrow
the moderate Islamic Courts Union, Somalia descended into war, and the Bush
policy radicalized an ever-larger portion of the population. But Obama,
whose world view embraces the idea of talking to one's enemies, could shift
course on this policy failure and increase stability by re-engaging with the
Islamists, and in particular with the young fighters who make up the ranks
of al-Shabab, the Islamists who have been gaining strength over the last two
years and continue to drag Somalia further into chaos.

The window of opportunity for Obama is small and fragile. But two things
have happened in Somalia that could make the task easier. First, the hated
Ethiopian occupation of Somalia that fueled the growth of al-Shabab is over.
Second, Abdullah Yusuf resigned in December as president, paving the way for
more moderate and inclusive figures to have greater say. Still, Obama's
policy prescriptions would have to be specific, but not overstated. He could
temporarily suspend U.S military C-130 flights over Somalia, now a
near-constant presence, thereby sending a message that a future policy will
not have as its central piece a military component that alienates the very
people America needs to bring to the table. Obama could also consider
suspending al-Shabab from the terror list temporarily to prove that, as he
said in his inaugural speech, America will hold out its hand if its enemies
"unclench their fists." A third path would be to open back-channel
negotiations with as many hard-line factions as necessary to bring them into
talks. Key to any strategy would be a quiet outreach effort to Sheik Hassan
Dahir Aweys, considered the father of Somalia's Islamist movement and likely
sufficiently powerful to bring enough radicals to heel to make any diplomacy
worthwhile. Finally, as Rice hinted in her confirmation hearings, America
needs to begin to fashion a regional approach that would address the
longstanding border dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea as part of any move
to end Somalia's isolation.

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It won't be easy. Al-Shabab poses urgent security concerns to the United
States and many of Somalia's neighbors. Some of the group's hard-line
leaders have connections to Al Qaeda. More worryingly, Somalia has started
to attract American jihadists, including several from Minnesota who traveled
there recently to fight. An unknown number may still be training in Shabab
training camps in the south, and it's unclear whether their long-term goals
lie in Somalia or back in Minnesota. Yet Obama, already beset by doubts
about his Muslim heritage, isn't likely to make conciliatory talks with
Islamists in Africa his first move. "He would be walking into a trap if he
did anything that could lead to charges of being soft on terror," says Sally
Healy, a Somalia expert at Chatham House.

But the potential rewards of such a strategy are tantalizing. The Bush
administration made a policy out of talking to its enemies in Iraq,
including many who had killed American soldiers, and as a result Iraq is
calmer and more stable. With two wars already on his plate, Obama would do
well to quell a rising storm in Africa's Horn, and the sooner the radicals
are tamed, the less likely it is that they'll continue to splinter into the
kinds of factions that could eventually return Somalia to the days when
warlords ruled the streets. The alternative to engagement, says Rashid Abdi
of the International Crisis Group's Somalia team, is that "by the end of the
year, we could be talking about over 100 armed groups in Somalia." A further
descent into warlordism is likely only to help the spread of radical
<http://www.newsweek.com/related.aspx?subject=Islam> Islam in the region. So
while few doubt that a strategy of engaging with the Islamists could be
risky, for Somalia and the rest of the Horn the riskiest option may also be
the best.

With Jason McLure in Addis Ababa

C 2009



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