x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A fine balance in the battle for a stable Somalia

American presence on the ground in Somalia is not a new phenomenon. The US has maintained a pervasive, if spotty, presence in the fractured African state.

American presence on the ground in Somalia is not a new phenomenon. From the UN-backed Operation Restore Hope during the 1990s to more recent efforts aimed at eliminating al Qa'eda's presence in the country, the US has maintained a pervasive, if spotty, presence in the fractured African state. Efforts to root out terrorism have at times clashed with desires to see governance restored; a drone strike aimed at killing al Qa'eda commanders last year further inflamed the militancy of Islamist groups on the ground, complicating efforts to defeat al Shabaab, the Islamist militia that controls southern Somalia and part of Mogadishu.

But since last year, the US has also realised that political engagement, rather than direct military intervention, is necessary if it wants to see Somalia restored as a functioning state. And despite taking almost 20 years since the infamous Blackhawk Down incident, the US seems to be understanding that deploying troops on foreign soil not only risks its own interests, but discredits its allies as well.

The current offensive to retake Mogadishu is spearheaded by the Somalian army, with support being offered by the US in the form of air strikes and special operations forces - the extent that this can be achieved with further alienating Somalis will be crucial. If successful, the army would break al Shabaab's stranglehold on the capital and restore the transitional federal government, a United Nations and US-backed entity, as the de facto government.

For the US, the intervention is seen as a necessary component to a counterterrorism strategy that wants to break the links between al Qa'eda in Yemen and Somalia. With a mere 160 kilometres separating the two countries at the Horn of Africa, the group has profited through an exchange of personnel and arms for the better part of a decade. As The National reported last month, the link is so strong that Yemen closed its waterways to prevent al Shabaab from landing on its coast after the group pledged to help al Qa'eda overthrow the government in Sana'a - one bridge-building venture the United States would not like to advance as part of its Middle East policy.

But while a US-backed offensive may be necessary to establish security and gain traction in war-torn Mogadishu, the only permanent solution is a political one. And, as the US has learnt again and again, excessive interference can do more harm than good. The creation of the transitional government has been the 14th attempt by negotiators to create a government since 1991. If it is to last, competing factions in Ethiopia, Somaliland and Puntland will ultimately have to be brought into the fold. And while the US may offer support, it is the Somalis, and whatever government they can forge, who must ultimately stabilise the country.