U.S. takes new look at Somalia strategy

U.S. takes new look at Somalia strategy
Tue Apr 21, 2009 3:47pm BST
* U.S. looks for new strategy on Somalia*
Still searching for embassy bombers*
Support for government could backfire
By Sue Pleming
WASHINGTON, April 21 (Reuters) - Piracy off its shores has made Somalia an early challenge for the Obama administration, which is grappling to devise a new strategy that will not replicate past failed U.S. policies in the Horn of Africa.
The immediate goal, say U.S. officials, is to bolster Somalia's new government and its moderate Islamist president, seen by many as the best hope of bringing stability to the lawless country after 18 years of turmoil.
As a starting point, the United States plans to help fund the country's nascent security force. An overall review of U.S. strategy is looking at what else Washington could do to stabilize the capital Mogadishu and surrounding areas while at the same time tackling the piracy scourge.
But if the United States is too public in its support of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, it could backfire and embolden hardliners, with the new leader being branded as Washington's puppet.
"When the United States embraces a government in Somalia, we de-legitimize it. It is this awful sort of double-edged sword," a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters.
The State Department's key Africa diplomat, acting Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Carter, said Washington had learned from its mistakes of the 1990s when a peacekeeping mission ended in shambles and U.S. forces withdrew.
The United States had no desire to "drive this process" and would let the Somalis push their own peace process forward.
"It can't be a made in the USA kind of thing," said Carter, who will be the U.S. envoy at a donors conference for Somalia in Brussels later this week.
The Obama administration is deciding how to balance U.S. security interests with Somalia's own political future.
Somalia is seen as a poster child for security threats emanating from Africa, but following the "retributive military strikes" of the Bush administration is not the answer, said Somalia expert John Prendergast.
"Airstrikes during the Bush administration occasionally took out one or two targets on the ground but inspired hundreds more Somalis to join the jihadist insurgency," Prendergast said.
The Bush administration tacitly approved a 2006 invasion by Somalia's regional rival Ethiopia to crush supposed al Qaeda activity and this boosted local suspicion of the U.S. role.
"Absent a state-building strategy, muscle-flexing military approaches are counter-productive for counter-terrorism," added Prendergast, chair of the advocacy group, the Enough Project.
A brazen attack this month on a U.S.-flagged carrier has re-focused attention on fighting piracy off Somalia, with some in the military weighing up hitting pirate camps on land. [nN20517909]
But U.S. air strikes or land raids in Puntland, where most of the pirates are based, were very unlikely, said the defense official, because of the high risk of civilian deaths and the fallout that would follow.
The pirates would then seek common cause with Islamist militants such as Somalia's al Shabaab group, a powerful al Qaeda-aligned group who control large swathes of territory.
However, the United States is looking for cooperation from the new government in tracking down al Qaeda operatives in Somalia, including those suspected of the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"There are still a couple of really bad guys out there that we would not mind seeing depart from the planet," said the defense official.
Somalia's new government is trying to reconcile warring factions, possibly bringing in militants like Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former chairman of the Islamic Courts Union that ruled Mogadishu in 2006
Somali expert Ken Menkhaus said the United States needed to provide "political space" for individuals like Aweys, who is on Washington's list of foreign terrorists, to make public commitments to renounce terrorism.
"We need to provide a certain amount of flexibility in these negotiations," said Menkhaus, a professor at Davidson College and former special advisor to the U.N. operation in Somalia.
The State Department's Carter said it was unclear what kind of role Aweys wanted to play. "He has been a spoiler and he is a person of concern for us," he said.
Carter said the United States was banking on a "lot of disillusionment" on behalf of Somalis, both toward groups like al Shabaab as well as spoilers in political reconciliation.
"This is probably the best opportunity that Somalia has had in a long time to develop a sustainable peace and get the country on some kind of a development path. But it is very risky." (Additional reporting by Andrew Gray; Editing by Patricia Wilson and Paul Simao)

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