Though US-supported "secular warlords" in the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism militia have fled Mogadishu, the fundamentalist Islamic Courts Union (ICU) doesn't control hearts, minds or, for that matter, all of Mogadishu. Clan militias still operate in parts of the shattered city. The disintegration of the Alliance may be a temporary phenomenon. Defeated Somali militias have a tendency to regroup in the countryside.
Clans dominate Somali life and politics, which means even in the best of times Somalia is a country constantly grappling with divisive factional and regional interests. Somalia's U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is weak -- wracked by corruption and sapped by political infighting among clan leaders with designs on national leadership. The ICU bills itself as a multi-clan organization, with Islam the common denominator, but like the TFG it has internal factions with divisions that are tough to bridge.
The clerics atop the ICU now deny any affiliation with al-Qaida. They have, however, displayed Taliban-like tendencies. The clerics banned World Cup soccer "watching parties" and cut off electricity to theaters showing the games. They have ordered Somali women to wear veils.
Though Somalia's turmoil and chaos has provided a haven for Islamist radicals, strict religious law has little appeal to the majority of Somalis. Switching off the World Cup produced a stinging, self-inflicted political defeat for the ICU, souring Somalis who thought the ICU might impose order on Mogadishu's chaos. In the mid-1990s, the war-weary Afghanis hoped the Taliban would end the fighting. Instead, the Taliban brought al-Qaida.
The Somali people are caught in a bitter bind. The Alliance attracted little public support.
Despite the ICU's recent denials of al-Qaida connections, ICU clerics have praised Islamist terrorists. This concerns Washington, but should also concern the ICU. The ICU knows U.S. special operations troops could support rival Somali militias with everything from tactical advice to pinpoint air strikes. The U.S. smart bomb attack on an Iraqi "safe house" hiding terrorist kingpin Abu Musab al-Zarqawi provides a reminder of American capabilities. If the ICU shows new political flexibility vis-à-vis negotiations with the TFG and mutes hard-line Islamist rhetoric, we may well be witnessing an example of the diplomatic payoff of successful counter-terror strikes against terrorist leaders.
Potential U.S. involvement invokes bitter memories of Mogadishu 1993 and the U.S. Army Ranger raid that led to the "Blackhawk Down" fiasco.
As one of the recently declassified al-Qaida documents (Letter 3 to al-Qaida's "Africa Corps") reveals, the U.S. withdrawal from Mogadishu fed al-Qaida's dream of defeating America. The al-Qaida correspondent wrote that Somalia was a "splendid victory" with "profound implications ideologically, politically and psychologically."
He added: "The Somali experience confirmed the spurious nature of American power and that it has not recovered from the Vietnam complex. It fears getting bogged down in a real war that would reveal its psychological collapse at the level of personnel and leader."
Subsequent events have proved al-Qaida to be dead wrong about American staying power.
The sad fact is Somalia in 2006 isn't Somalia in 1993, but a replay of Somalia circa 2002. In a column I wrote in February 2002, I described Somalia as "the planet's foremost failed state." That column argued that it was not in America's interest to "leave Somalia's 'failed state' to recurrent chaos." American policy since 2002 has been to work with other East African nations to fight terrorism and wage a form of "preventive war" designed to strengthen weak states and prevent new failed states. Coalition Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (based in Djibouti) is the "hub" of this effort.
In the long run, regional stabilization will help Somalia -- but in the short run, Somalia will remain a chaotic battlefield. The United States and Islamo-fascist terrorists will continue to square off through proxies. Neighboring nations like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya will pursue their own interests by backing favored Somali clans and leaders with money and arms. Ethiopian troops (already inside Somalia) may masquerade as African Union peacekeepers. In January, the African Union discussed sending troops to Somalia. Its abysmal peacekeeping record in Darfur damns itself.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and TCS contributing writer.