Among the litany of booby traps left by the Bush administration for the Obama team, Somalia could be one of the most complicated and bizarre.

The crisis there is also an opportunity, however, as one of the main obstacles to all-party peace talks was the Bush administration’s cynical and unrealistic refusal to talk to the most powerful insurgent groups in Somalia because of their alleged association with terrorism. The Obama administration, if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing is any indication, also views the Horn of Africa in the context of terrorism.

Nevertheless, Obama has also talked of his preference for diplomatic solutions. Somalia would be an ideal place to test his diplomacy.

Pirates of the Indian Ocean

Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in December 2006, backed by the United States, sparked an Islamist resistance that led to thousands of civilian deaths, displaced over a million people, and depopulated the capital, Mogadishu. But instead of focusing on the aftermath of this crisis and helping foster a peace process, the United States, European Union, and other international actors are engaged in the more dramatic and media-friendly anti-piracy campaign.

Today’s tech-savvy navies, relying on the media and the Internet, have provided live images of high-speed ocean chases, shootouts, helicopter rescues, and parachute ransom drops onto hijacked ships. Galvanized by these images, the United Nations Security Council hastily convened to respond to this “grave threat” to international security. Dozens of warships from the U.S., Italian, Greek, Turkish, Iranian, Saudi Arabian, German, NATO, British, Japanese, Russian, Indian, Chinese, and Danish navies converged on East African waters to fight the pirates. Many interlopers have no geographic proximity or economic interests in the region, but the photo opportunities are irresistible.

The French navy grabbed headlines first by pursuing pirates on land and rescuing some hostages. The mission was accomplished with great aplomb, complete with professional video footage of the “rescue.” French officials and heroic naval officers vowed to pursue the pirates to the ends of the earth. Few raised concerns, however, about the violation of Somalia’s borders by foreign forces.

The Danish navy nabbed a couple of pirates a few days later, but couldn’t decide what to do with them. With no functioning government in Somalia, it isn’t clear who has jurisdiction over piracy in Somali waters. After dithering for a while in the high seas, the Danes decided to drop the captured pirates on an isolated beach along the 1,880-mile Somali shoreline.

Not to be outdone, the neophyte Indian navy charged into the picture and blew a Thai trawler to smithereens. Fourteen sailors are still missing. The Indians argued that it looked like a pirate “mother ship.” They apologized only to attack yet another fishing vessel a few days later. This time they had the attack on video ready for the cable networks.

On January 8, the U.S. Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain announced it had formed an anti-piracy taskforce that included “assets” from 20 nations. The taskforce doesn’t control other navies in the area. Vice Admiral William Gortney, who commands the coalition and naval forces in the Middle East, said the taskforce had been authorized to arrest suspected pirates and deliver them to an unspecified country for prosecution. Gortney noted that only one-tenth of 1% of the thousands of ships that use the Gulf of Aden are in danger of being hijacked.

Instead of auditioning for the next episode of Pirates of the Indian Ocean, the international community should invest its resources in seeking a political solution to the chaos in Somalia. Piracy, anarchy, kidnapping, and clan wars won’t stop until there is some form of stable government there.

Islamist Militias

While the pirates attract the lion’s share of world attention, the Islamist militias are gaining ground and are sure to control the whole country once Ethiopia withdraws its troops. The conflict has spread to other parts of the region, with suicide bombings in the formerly stable Somaliland and Puntland regions, piracy in international waters, and cross-border kidnappings in Kenya.

U.S. and EU actions and policies since 2001 were supposed to prevent this kind of chaos. By treating Somalia and the region as a battle-zone in the “war on terror,” however, the international community has made things worse. According to a December report by Human Rights Watch, for instance, “there are no quick fixes in Somalia, but foreign governments need to stop adding fuel to the fire with misguided policies that empower human rights abusers.”

U.S. policies in Somalia since 2001 have been obdurate and counterproductive. First, the CIA backed unpopular and bloodthirsty warlords, stoking anti-American feeling and setting the stage for the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts that finally took power in 2006. Then, the Bush administration supported the Ethiopian invasion while continuing to attack suspected al-Qaeda targets within Somalia. At one point, U.S. operations in Somalia were touted as the model for post-Iraq counterterrorism strategies based on the use of surrogate countries to stabilize failed states.

Meanwhile, on the political front, the United States opposed the inclusion of important stakeholders in peace talks. U.S.-sponsored negotiations in Djibouti lacked credibility primarily because the Bush team refused to talk to clan leaders and movements on the “terrorist watch list.” Blacklisted groups included the Islamist al-Shabaab, which already controls much of Somalia and is poised to take Mogadishu as soon as Ethiopian troops withdraw. Hassan Awey’s well-armed militia also did not attend peace talks in Djibouti. Both these groups have indicated a willingness to talk, but the Bush administration insisted they first renounce violence.

“An Islamic republic is inevitable,” argues Daniela Kroslak of the International Crisis Group. If this is so, the United States and its allies in the region, especially Ethiopia, need to come to terms with reality and begin negotiations with the Islamists. The Islamic courts have already demonstrated their ability to impose law and order in areas under their control. These courts can handle piracy, kidnapping, and terrorism cases.

Obama’s pledge to change the Bush administration’s belligerent and counterproductive policies could have far-reaching consequences for the region as a whole. Obama’s team has an opportunity to jumpstart the political process to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. It’s still possible, but the only way to reach a political solution is to bring all sides to the table. Once a political agreement is in place, then the work of conflict management and transformation can begin.

Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and teaches African politics and conflict resolution at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions (Indiana University Press, 2004) and is completing a book on peacemaking in the Horn of Africa.

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