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More troops for Somalia, but no peace to keep

NAIROBI, Kenya » If there is one place on the African continent that could benefit from new thinking, it is Somalia, a country that has been mired in mutating forms of civil war for nearly 20 years.

But that is apparently not, many analysts contend, what Africa’s leaders are prepared to give it.

Instead, the various presidents across the continent said goodbye to one another on Tuesday at the close of their annual summit meeting by agreeing on a remedy that has never solved Somalia’s problems: more peacekeepers.

The approach goes against the grain of what recent history has taught about Somalia, analysts point out—that no amount of outside firepower has brought the country to heel. Not thousands of U.S. Marines in the early 1990s. Not the enormous U.N. mission that followed. Not the Ethiopian Army storming into Somalia in 2006. Not the current African Union peacekeepers, who are steadily wearing out their welcome.

In fact, the only time Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, was remotely quiet was for six months in 2006, when an Islamist coalition controlled the city by itself. Today, the most stable part of the country is the breakaway region of Somaliland, which just held elections and on Tuesday carried out one of the Horn of Africa’s rare peaceful transfers of power, despite little help and a lack of official recognition from the outside world.

Many, if not most, of the analysts who follow Somalia believe that the African peacekeeping mission, no matter how many troops are part of it, is going to fail.

"I cannot think of a worse decision than to not merely continue the strategically bankrupt policy of sending more ‘peacekeepers’ to Somalia, when there is no peace for them to keep, but to compound that mistake by sending more troops to protect a regime that has no hope of ever governing southern and central Somali, much less the entire country," said J. Peter Pham, a senior vice president at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

Somalia continues to be a caldron of bloodshed, piracy and Islamist radicalism. That volatile mix has spilled over its borders in recent years, but perhaps most intensely on July 11, when the authorities said suicide bombers blew themselves up in Kampala, Uganda—the site of the African Union meeting—two weeks before the presidents arrived. Kampala was thought to be one of the most laid-back capitals on the continent—lush, friendly and secure. The bombings killed more than 70 civilians and shocked the entire country.

Somali Islamist insurgents—egged on, or possibly aided, by al-Qaida—claimed responsibility for the attack. There are currently 6,000 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers in Mogadishu, but they are struggling to beat back the Islamist fighters, who are rallying around a group called the Shabab.

Somalia’s transitional government is doing worse. Feckless and divided, the government is holed up in a hilltop palace in Mogadishu, unable to deliver services, mobilize the people or provide a coherent alternative to the insurgents, who chop off hands, ban music, soccer and bras and hold much of Somalia in a grip of fear.

The African Union wants to add 2,000 troops now; some African leaders have even mused about another 14,000. The American government is also supportive of adding troops, offering in the past week to increase the peacekeeping money it contributes. (The United States has already provided close to $200 million.)

The philosophy is that if the peacekeepers can push the Shabab out of Mogadishu and buy a little time and space for the Somali government, the government can sprout roots, help out the population with food, water, education and jobs, gain some credibility and begin to turn around a country that has become a byword for anarchy.

Johnnie Carson, an assistant secretary of state and the top American diplomat for Africa, said Tuesday in Kampala that this outside intervention would be different from previous attempts, which were plagued by a "lack of consistency" and "a lack of resolution."

U.S. officials have also said that the peacekeepers cannot fix the situation themselves and that the transitional government has to strengthen its own security forces, which the United States is helping, both overtly and covertly.

But many analysts argue that it would be better, in the long run, to pull out all the peacekeepers, let the transitional government fall, let the Shabab take over the country and then allow clan militias and businessmen to rise up and overthrow them. The eventual result, analysts argue, would be a government that would be more organic and therefore more durable than a government that relies on outside forces to survive.

"I don’t think there’s a strategy that will cause less harm," said Bronwyn E. Bruton, a consultant on democracy and governing who championed a policy of "constructive disengagement" in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations.

Recent history has shown that nothing galvanizes Somalis more than an outside occupier. The African Union peacekeepers were initially appreciated for standing up to the Shabab. But as time passes and the fighting intensifies, the peacekeepers are making enemies among the populace by shelling crowded neighborhoods in response to insurgent fire and inadvertently killing civilians.

In striking Ugandans, the Shabab may have calculated that the Somali population was getting fed up with the Ugandan peacekeepers and that such an attack would play well on the shelled-out streets of Mogadishu.

American officials say they are aware of the risks of injecting more force and more guns into Somalia. But they, along with many others, are unnerved by the prospects of the Shabab taking over the entire country.

There are fears in Nairobi that the Shabab could attack Kenya during a constitutional referendum, when large groups of people are lined up outside casting their votes. People here were deeply disturbed by the pictures from Kampala, of young Ugandans dressed up for a night out sitting dead in white plastic chairs, some still seemingly alive, with beer bottles in their laps. The message the images sent: The Shabab are getting closer to al-Qaida, and closer to us.


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