A Domino Effect in the Horn of Africa?

Somalia's civil war, pitting the Transitional Federal Government against al Shabab and other Islamist rebel groups, has been destabilizing Kenya and Ethiopia for some time now. Al Shabab recruits fighters from Kenya, and conflict on the Somali-Ethiopian border has provoked Ethiopian military interventions in Somalia even after the 2008 withdrawal of Ethiopian forces from the country. How far will chaos spread, and what is the appropriate US policy response?

At the United Nations General Assembly meeting last week, leaders from Kenya and Ethiopia openly warned of the consequences Somalia's instability could have for the region. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga devoted a large portion of his floor speech to Somalia, saying that "the continuing inflow of refugees, small arms and light weapons [from Somalia] is the major source of insecurity in our country."

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Ato Seyoum Mesfin painted an even more alarming picture, arguing that not only might Somalia fall soon to al Shabab, but the conflict there could expose Sudan to radical influences from the Horn. Mesfin did not spell out precisely how he thought fighting in Somalia would destabilize Sudan, but likely he was alluding to North-South tensions stemming from the run-up to next year's presidential election and a 2011 referendum on Southern independence.

Unspoken, perhaps, was another, more immediate fear: that the Somali civil war will fan flames of conflict in Ethiopia's majority-Somali Ogaden region. Reports of collaboration between the Ogaden Liberation Front, a rebel group, and al Shabab undoubtedly have Ethiopian officials nervous.

How should the US react to these warnings? Washington should certainly take regional leaders' perspectives seriously, both as knowledgeable assessments of the situation on the ground and as political messages indicating the shape of Kenyan and Ethiopian foreign policy.

Yet Washington should not make the mistake of viewing all problems in the Horn as stemming from a single source. Somalia's civil war constitutes a danger to the whole region, but it is not the only cause of instability. Drought strains East African governments' capacities to provide for the welfare of their constituents. Ethnic tensions inside Ethiopia and Kenya cause strife, and maneuvering in advance of the next elections (Ethiopia's are in 2010, Kenya's in 2012) consumes a significant portion of leaders' energies.

These tensions would exist even if al Shabab -- or Somalia -- did not. Similarly, armed conflicts in the region that threaten to reignite - civil war between North and South Sudan, separatist violence in Ogaden, war between Ethiopia and Eritrea - began long before al Shabab formed. It is important to recognize the threat al Shabab poses to the region, but it is also important not to lose sight of the complexity of political relationships inside Somalia and across the region. This is especially true as al Shabab finds its political support slipping in some parts of Somalia. Even as the Islamist rebels bid for control of Mogadishu, other groups are challenging their dominance in strategic towns like Kismayo, a major port on the Indian Ocean, and Beledweyne, which sits near the border with Ethiopia.

In American policy toward the Horn, one feature appears settled: Washington will continue to support Somalia's Transitional Federal Government with aid and weapons. But this step does not in and of itself fulfill the need for a more developed policy toward Somalia. Going forward, Washington should think carefully about how Somalia fits into a regional context. Clearly Somalia's neighbors are worried. If the United States is to play a positive role in the region, we must think about whether our policies will help allay fears or increase them. Will missile strikes on terrorist suspects in Somalia do more harm - particularly to US relations with Kenya - than they will good? Will strategies of quarantining southern Somalia keep al Shabab out of Kenya's refugee camps and urban centers? Will the perceived need to stabilize Somalia eclipse other concerns in the region, such as the political and human rights situations in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan? All these questions bear scrutiny as the Somali civil war rages on, creating unpredictable effects both inside and outside of the country.