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John Prendergast and Colin Thomas-Jensen Headshot

Africa's Iraq

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This month's U.S. airstrike in Somalia was a rare military success in a region where U.S. counter-terrorism policy is failing spectacularly. The missile attack that killed Aden Hashi Ayro, a vicious Somali militia leader with ties to al Qaeda, is reminiscent of the 2006 operation that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq. Just as it did with al-Zarqawi, the Bush administration is touting Ayro's killing as a major victory in the war on terror, but as in Iraq the death of a single leader will do little to either slow the spread of extremism in Somalia or reduce the terrorist threat to the American interests in the region and beyond.

The parallels between Iraq and Somalia are striking. Both countries were invaded on national security grounds. Each invading power -- the U.S. in Iraq and U.S.-backed Ethiopia in Somalia -- lacked a post-war political strategy. Invaders became unwelcome occupiers, insurgencies gained strength, and destructive civil wars ensued. Extremist ideologies and terrorist groups gathered momentum and recruits, posing greater menace than they did before.

But there is one significant difference. In Iraq, the U.S. finally accepted that a political solution, however difficult to attain, is indispensable to long-term success. Not so in Somalia, where Ethiopia and its American allies have consistently favored military force over political mediation and state reconstruction -- much more effective long-term antidotes to terrorism and insurgency.

The U.S. turned its back on Somalia after the events of October 3, 1993, when Somali militias shot down two Black Hawk helicopters over the capital Mogadishu. Washington reversed its hands-off approach after Somalia was used by al-Qaeda as a staging ground for attacks on U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and on Israeli interests in Kenya in 2002. Re-engaging on Somalia after a decade-long hiatus, American counter-terrorism efforts became intertwined with the security interests of our main ally in the region: Ethiopia.

When a group of Islamists -- some with links to al-Qaeda -- established a foothold in southern Somalia in mid-2006, Ethiopia began planning an invasion aimed at propping up a weak and unpopular transitional government. With encouragement from the Bush administration, Ethiopian forces attacked in December 2006. Now, 18 months later, they are hunkered down in Mogadishu, fighting an insurgency with no end in sight. Roughly one third of Mogadishu has been reduced to rubble and an estimated 60 percent of the city's inhabitants -- nearly 700,000 people -- have fled. Thousands have been killed.

Unlike the disaster in Darfur, there is little international awareness or action on behalf of war-affected Somalis. Quite the contrary: a small African Union peacekeeping force in Mogadishu is there to protect the transitional government, not the population. The Ethiopian forces in Mogadishu have committed grave violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas.

Instead of denouncing war crimes and pressuring Ethiopia to support a political deal that could end the conflict, the U.S. is concentrating most of its energies -- including a vast and sustained intelligence effort and support for self-interested Somali "counter-terrorism" agencies -- on capturing or killing three foreign al-Qaeda fugitives and a dozen or so of their Somali associates. Aden Hashi Ayro was at the top of that list.

Just like Iraq, a purely military solution will not yield the desired result. A sustained, internationally-driven peace initiative, coinciding with a negotiated withdrawal of Ethiopian forces and reinforcement of the AU peacekeeping force, must be mounted to achieve a political accommodation between the Ethiopian-backed transitional government on the one hand and the Islamist insurgents and disaffected clans on the other.

The embattled transitional government in Somalia has finally warmed to a dialogue aimed at a power-sharing deal. This is the first real sign of flexibility from an entity that has ruled by exclusion, divisiveness, and violence. Ethiopia has indicated that it might support a deal, and the international community must seize this rare opportunity to kick-start political talks. UN Special Representative Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah should lead this process, backed by African states, the EU, and the U.S. Given its history of involvement and influence with key regional actors, America has a responsibility to play a central role.

To provide leverage for peace efforts, the UN Security Council should impose targeted sanctions against any Somali leader clearly fomenting further violence, and refer the case of Somalia to the International Criminal Court for investigations into war crimes and crimes against humanity. Until the cycle of impunity is ended, there will be no peace in Somalia.

If international community moves quickly, it could give Somalia a chance to end its long and costly war. If it does not, the insurgency will expand further, the human rights and humanitarian crisis will deepen, strengthening an Islamist movement that could pose a grave regional and international threat -- precisely the outcome U.S. support for Ethiopia's invasion and the airstrike sought to prevent.

Mr. Prendergast is a former Director of African Affairs at the National Security Council and co-Chair of ENOUGH: The Project to End Genocide and Crimes against Humanity. Colin Thomas-Jensen is a policy advisor to ENOUGH.