international, Somalia, Al-Shabab
Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP
Armed fighters from the Al-shabab group travel on the back of pickup trucks outside
Mogadishu in Somalia on Monday Dec. 8, 2008.

Fragile Somalia Heads Toward Brink

January 05, 2009 12:53 PM
by Christopher Coats
Overshadowed by a surge in piracy just off its coast, Somalia’s internal stability has edged closer to the brink of lawlessness, all-out war and possible collapse.

Assessing Somali Instability

Culminating in a new year that saw both U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces begin their withdrawal and Somalia’s UN-supported president resign, the country’s fragile state has left a power vacuum that many feel may be filled by militant Islamic groups now battling for control of the country’s central region.

Absent a functioning legislature or real leadership, Somalia has become an unstable breeding ground for piracy—Somali-based boats have seized more than 100 vessels in 2008 alone—attracting international navies to its shores.

“This problem emanates not at sea. I mean, it starts from onshore,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told the NewsHour in November. “And clearly the Somali government needs help. This transitional federal government has acknowledged it does not have the capacity to deal with this problem.”

Although the recent spate in piracy has brought global attention to Somalia’s instability, the country has struggled under the weight of warring factions since Mohamed Siad Barre, who ruled the country for more than 20 years, was ousted in 1991.

Since then, a host of militant Islamic groups have violently sought control, including Al-Shabab, which was designated a terrorist organization by the United States earlier this year and has been the main opponent of neighboring Ethiopia.

The struggle for power has resulted in humanitarian emergencies across the country, including a mass exodus of residents from war-torn cities and frequent food shortages, as well as the establishment of sprawling refugee camps.

Currently, more than 3.4 million Somalis are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid.

Neighboring Ethiopia entered Somalia in 2006 after representatives of Somalia’s courts declared a holy war against the nation, its forces pushing as far as Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu.

At first successful in driving armed militants from the capital, Ethiopia’s efforts have recently only served to motivate new members to join Al-Shabab, which entered the international spotlight earlier this year when it announced its members would join the fight against sea pirates after a group seized a Saudi oil tanker.

According to the BBC, intelligence reports tell of an increase from 600 Al-Shabab members when Ethiopia first invaded to up to 3,000 today.

Background: Abdullahi Yusuf and the West

This surge in the presence of Islamic militants was directly cited by outgoing President Abdullahi Yusuf as the reason for dissolving his UN-backed government and stepping down.

Having led the Transitional Federal Government, Yusuf has largely been viewed as a toothless head of state, unable to stop the progress of Al-Shabab as they’ve taken control of a number of cities, including the vital port of Merca, and set their sights on the nation’s capital.

Yusuf’s exit marks the 14th attempt at establishing a government in Somalia since Barre was overthrown in 1991.

Although the United Nations has called for countries to contribute forces to a peacekeeping effort, it has received almost no response, while the United States has kept a silent but visible presence in the region.

Reportedly contributing financial, logistical and military support to the Ethiopian forces, U.S. forces have also been tied to secretly supporting secular warlords in their fight for power against militant Islamic groups.

The United States had once taken a more hands-on approach to the instability of the country, sending troops into Mogadishu in 1993. Overwhelmed by insurgent forces and an unfamiliar terrain, U.S. troops were pushed out of the capital city, but not before losing 18 soldiers, with an additional 84 wounded. 

Related Topic: Pursuing pirates

With the exception of incursions alongside the Ethiopian army, the United States has largely kept away from Somali soil, although the passage of an American-proposed UN resolution allowing international forces to follow pirates ashore could soon change that.

Unanimously authorized by the UN Security Council on Dec. 15, Resolution 1851 allows the use of “any means necessary” to pursue pirates operating off the Horn of Africa, including air and land attacks.

The breakdown of the current government and exodus of Ethiopian forces provides an opportunity for Al-Shabab or other militant groups to expand their reach in Somalia, further threatening food distribution to an already starving population.

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