Recently, U.S. policy in Somalia hit a new low, with the shipment of 40 tons of arms to a government on the verge of overthrow, if not nervous collapse. Worse still, last Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with the president of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG), Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, and promised to expand U.S. support. This perpetuates a long history of unsuccessful meddling in the affairs of Somalia, from Black Hawk Down to air strikes against al-Qaida suspects to support for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. Somalia would be better off without our spasmodic interference.
That's not to say the U.S. doesn't have national interests at stake in the country and region. A humanitarian crisis demanded our attention in the early 1990s, a crisis that still persists. In addition, there are now al-Qaida connections in Somalia to worry about, as well as piracy in the Gulf of Aden. We've acknowledged that instability and anarchy in Somalia lie at the root of all of these issues. Yet we find ourselves in policy paralysis as the situation in the country exceeds even the worst-case scenarios.
The best we've come up with is to resolutely support Somalia's internationally backed TFG, which has virtually no governance capacity. Clinton claims that this specter of a government is "the best hope we've had in quite some time for a return to stability and the possibility of progress in Somalia" -- a tall order, given the state of things. Forty-three hundred African Union peacekeepers have the unenviable task of providing little more than guard duty for the TFG and the buildings that house it. Increasingly, the TFG is coming up short in its fight against al-Shabaab, the leading rebel movement that controls parts of Mogadishu and most of south and central Somalia.
Al-Shabaab's version of extremist Islamic governance is not popular with many moderate Somalis, even if it does engender a degree of terror-inspired stability. And it's not clear, were al-Shabaab to assume power, that it would be able to maintain consolidated authority. The group has, however, mobilized Somalis and jihadists with the attraction of a nationalist, radical Islamic agenda -- one that feeds on Somalis' resentment of the intrusive actions of outside powers, especially neighboring Ethiopia.