Jul 13th 2006From The Economist print edition.
The comparison with the Taliban is overdone, but America needs to push for peace now
AT FIRST sight, recent events in Somalia look depressingly similar to those in Afghanistan when it fell to the Taliban. After 15 years of civil war and no government, an Islamist army has swept aside warlords and firmly asserted its control. This week the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC) finally took the entire capital, Mogadishu, and it controls several towns nearby (see article). As in Afghanistan, exhausted people are finding mullah-rule better than anarchy and extortion; as roadblocks have been lifted, prices have fallen. But outsiders, especially America, fear that the CIC is a shield for al-Qaeda.
Somalia is actually very different from Afghanistan. For instance, it is ethnically homogenous. Its divisions, ever since it fractured in 1991, have mainly been between clans—or, as it has continued to fall apart, between sub-sub-sub-clans. Unlike the Taliban, which was dominated by a single Pushtun tribe, keen to assert its rights over other ethnic groups, the CIC is creaking with inter-communal tensions. Indeed, those divisions are suggested by its name. Although Islamic courts have for several years been the only dispensers of justice in Mogadishu, each one is controlled by a distinct sub-clan—and cannot try a member of a rival group. If previous feuds are anything to go by, family ties will prove stronger than Islamist unity.
The CIC offers an opportunity as well as a threat. Although its leaders want to build an Islamist state, some of them seem to realise that this would be unacceptable to many Somalis, who are a fairly secular lot. The CIC's most pressing concern is to prevent foreign peacekeepers, from Uganda and Sudan, being deployed to Somalia under the terms of a regional peace plan. This was designed to shore up the 14th effort to make a government in Somalia. The government—a coalition of warlords and businessmen recognised by the United Nations but by only a minority of Somalis—is cowering in the town of Baidoa, under a surreptitious guard of Ethiopian troops.
If the government and the CIC could negotiate a power-sharing deal, Somalia might end up with a government that actually controls its terrain. If the two sides fight, the consequences could be dreadful. Ethiopia would be likely to send more troops to the government, rallying many nationalists to the CIC and boosting hardliners among the Islamists, such as their joint leader, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who is accused by America of helping a few al-Qaeda fugitives in Somalia.
If that worries America, it has itself partly to blame. Early this year, it gave cash and guns to certain warlords in Mogadishu to grab the fugitives and their local friends on its behalf. This helped spark the recent conflict, in which several hundred people have been killed, and the CIC has triumphed.
With the European Union, America should urge Somalia's factions to negotiate. They should also insist that Ethiopia, a hated neighbour, withdraw its troops. And they should help uphold a UN arms embargo on the country. A governed Somalia would be easier to police—which is why America should quit meddling on the cheap, and pursue serious diplomacy.