Somalia poses a grave danger to the United States and the Horn of Africa today. Despite the U.S. “Global War on Terror,” piracy in the Gulf of Aden threatens the supply of oil and commercial trade to the West. Islamic extremists threaten the stability of this region more than ever. Islamists in Somalia continue to welcome ideologies from Saudi Arabia that fuel large numbers of angry and unrepresented young men, who turn to Osama bin Laden’s call of resistance and terror in the face of Somalia’s disparities.

President George W. Bush played a role in allowing this problem to develop. His war on terror has been unplanned, unprepared, and unfocused. Bush ignored every rule of foreign policy and proper engagement with another country. Rather than listening to the State Department’s expertise, Bush turned to ill-informed advisors such as Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton. The administration failed to provide the moral, logistical, and monetary support for the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFG) or the African Union peacekeepers deployed in the wake of Ethiopia’s invasion.

Rise of Piracy

This neglect resulted in the presence of pirates in Somalia, who have the finances, the physical access to one of Africa’s largest coastlines, and the technology to capture a range of merchant ships. Spoils have included a huge Saudi oil supertanker carrying $100 million of oil. In 2008 alone, pirates attacked more than 100 ships.

In response to the threat of the Somali pirates, warships from several countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Denmark, and the United States, are now operating in the Gulf of Aden off of Somalia to protect shipping lanes. If the United States doesn’t fully engage with Somalia, piracy will grow. Oil prices will rise due to security demands, higher insurance rates, ransoms, and longer shipping routes.

Bush also leaves in Somalia an Islamist movement even more powerful than when the Ethiopian troops and the TFG defeated them in 2006. The Islamists threaten the fabric and the freedoms of the Somali people, and are bent on imposing strict Sharia law as their co-religionists in other countries have sought to do.

The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), the moderate wing of Islamist movement, is now interested in sharing power with the TFG. The inclusion of UIC into the TFG is a welcome move and will help reduce violence in Mogadishu. The Obama administration should directly engage the TFG officials and UIC leadership to ensure transparency of the upcoming Somali presidential elections. The process of electing a new president must be seen as fair, and the new president should have wide support from the diverse Somali regions and communities

A Regional Approach

The announcement by Ethiopia that it’s withdrawing its forces from Somalia poses a problem for President Barack Obama, as it leaves a vacuum in the region. The Islamists, who already control most of Southern Somalia, are now unrivaled. Obama shouldn’t just reverse the destructive policies of the Bush administration in Somalia, but also attempt to recreate engagement with the country, particularly at the regional level. This means reexamining the concept of building a Somali government from the top down. Obama should design a clear U.S. government policy to strengthen those regions in Somalia that are already peaceful and have functioning regional governments.

Puntland and Somaliland are two Somali regions with such governments, and are situated at strategic locations to target Somali piracy. Obama should engage and mobilize European governments already near Somali waters to support the Puntland and Somaliland governments with assistance in their police force, security services, infrastructure, and economic development. Strengthening and supporting these two regions, which make up almost 40% of Somalia, will employ young people, improve security, and eliminate piracy. Supporting these regions will be an example to the rest of Somalia of how Somalis can govern themselves peacefully.

The United States should take an active role in Somalia. But sending in the Fifth Fleet to fight piracy isn’t enough. Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, should work to ensure that the African Union force in Mogadishu is strengthened and African states meet their obligation to support peace in Somalia. Rice’s prior work in peacekeeping operations and African affairs for the Clinton administration is an asset. Ignoring Somalia now would be catastrophic, not only for the suffering Somali people, but also for the security of the United States and the Horn of Africa.

Hussein Yusuf is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and a program officer at the Engaging Governments on Genocide Prevention Program (EGGP) at George Mason University.

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