The United States’ raids in Somalia are poorly timed and potentially very dangerous. The immediate goal of killing some leaders of al-Qa’ida groups in East Africa may have been achieved, although multiple reports of civilian deaths are disturbing. However, the raids could also undermine recent progress toward bringing at least minimal stability to the chronically unstable conditions in Somalia. In the statements by U.S. government officials, it appears that virtually no thought was given to the possible impact of the raids on conditions in the country. The long term result could easily be that the raids open the way for increased instability, with an even higher probability that the unstable conditions could create more “safe havens” for terrorists than before the raids.
The political and security conditions in Somalia changed dramatically during the first week of 2007. In the final months of 2006 the country appeared to be coming under the control of a Taliban-style regime led by the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). However, that process was halted when Ethiopia intervened militarily in support of the weak but internationally-recognized transitional Somali government. The Ethiopian-supported government forces took control of the capital Mogadishu on 28 December, and the last major UIC stronghold, the southern port of Kismayo, was captured on 1 January.
The establishment of the transitional government and the defeat of the UIC appears to be based on a delicate balance. Most of the people in the capital welcomed the government but many were nervous about the military presence of the traditional Ethiopian enemy. The Ethiopians are historically identified as the Christian power with a long history of conflict with Muslim Somalis. The historic mistrust appears to have been suspended in the recent developments. However, the American raids have the potential for emphasizing the American support for the Ethiopian (viewed as Christian) army of occupation and undermine the efforts of the transitional government to disarm the warlords’ and clans’ militias. The result could be a return to the old anarchy and a quick end to the stability that seemed to be emerging.
If the American raids are viewed as part of a foreign-occupation and as a factor in the defeat of the Islamist militias of the UIC, then the nature of the conflict in Somalia changes. The conflict could become transformed from a successful effort to establish a legitimate government into a new phase in the long tradition of Muslim-Christian conflict in the Horn of Africa.
It is very important that the highly visible military presence of the United States in the waters just off the Somali coast be reduced as soon as possible. Further attacks, even if they seem to U.S. planners to be targeting foreign militants, might convince many Somalis that this is a joint American-Ethiopian attack on a Muslim country. The result could be a tragic reversion of the civil anarchy of the 1990s. The timing of the U.S. raids is dangerous and their continuation is a possible recipe for renewed disaster.
John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.