Somalia’s Civil War

May 9, 2008

A few days ago, an American air strike killed Aden Hashi Ayro, the military commander of Al Shebab, a militant Somali organization. For any number of reasons, the world is better off without Mr. Aryo, who is known for his intolerance and brutality. In his campaign to establish a radical Islamic state in Somalia, he called for attacks on United Nations personnel who are trying to bring humanitarian relief to this devastated country. For anyone who is not associated with Mr. Aryo’s jihad, it is difficult not to welcome his demise.

Mr. Aryo and his fellow Islamists have harbored terrorists that blew up our embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi as well as an Israeli hotel in Kenya. If he and the Islamic movement he fought for succeed in toppling the Somali Transitional Government, we can be sure that they will use southern Somalia as a base to launch attacks against the semiautonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland, as well as the neighboring states of Kenya and Ethiopia.

Their goal is to unite all Somalis — regardless of the fact that doing so would violate borders and be contrary to the wishes of many Somalis — into a radical Islamic caliphate from whence they would launch attacks on those who do not share their beliefs.

Yet, there is something that makes me uneasy about an air strike in a country with which we are not at war. Does the “Global War on Terror” give us the right to strike enemies anywhere or only in countries where the government is too weak or unimportant to cause us a problem? Can we — or any government — ignore the wishes of sovereign governments or close our eyes to the loss of innocent lives that inevitably occurs in a missile strike?

Even if we put the moral question aside about whether we have the right to strike without a declaration of war, we cannot ignore the consequences. If we want to succeed in stopping terrorist advances in Somalia then we must consider the costs and the benefits of our actions. If not, we will risk losing the support of our African friends and the international community.

Before we consider more missile attacks — and we most certainly will if for no other reason than this strike was successful — we would be prudent to establish some basic criteria. The Ayro strike serves as an excellent test case because it meets the bottom-line requirements for deploying our sophisticated off-shore weaponry. Every kinetic strike should meet these three simple rules: namely, that we have the agreement of the national government, the target is on terrorist list and loss of innocent life is kept to a minimum.

Air strikes should be deployed prudently and sparingly, and only when there is a high degree of likelihood that they will be successful. Still, if we are to stem the tide of terrorism and suffering, we must commit ourselves to a comprehensive effort to assist the Somali people by improving security, broadening governance and alleviating the humanitarian crisis.

The West, the African Union, and the United Nations have done too little in Somalia. The African nations have not fully deployed the peacekeeping troops they promised. As a result, Ethiopian troops are unable to return home without leaving a dangerous vacuum that would result in the Islamist toppling of the legitimate Somali government. But bolstering the Somali government must be accompanied by renewed and much stronger actions by the United Nations and the African Union to forge an inclusive government that would include all Somali clans and sub-clans, but would exclude armed terrorists like Mr. Ayro. Finally, the United States and the European Union will have to help the government and local authorities to begin to rebuild the country.

With the several air strikes we have launched in an effort to aid the Somali government, we have become an active partner in this conflict. But — as we have learned from Iraq — our involvement carries with it obligations to unite and to rebuild.

Our sad history in Somalia of the “Black Hawk Down” scenario, when 18 American troops were killed, has for too long kept us on the sidelines of this conflict. Now, 18 years later and despite our best efforts, we are part of the continuing Somali civil war. This time we cannot walk away. We will have to be part of the solution in order to stem the rising tide of terrorists, pirates and opportunists in this chaotic land.