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Islamist Militia Gains Upper Hand in Somalia

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

We'll talk about today's news of the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi later in the program. But first, could a small east African country, thousands of miles from Iraq, play a key role in the war on terror? Last weekend, Islamic fighters seized control of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Policymakers in Washington are worried this could further open the door to al-Qaida, which has thrived in Somalia since the country's government collapsed 15 years ago.

NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with John Prendergast, Senior Adviser at the International Crisis Group. He's been to Somalia several times in recent years and says America's past foreign policy is partially to blame for the present crisis.

Mr. JOHN PRENDERGAST (Senior Adviser, International Crisis Group): The U.S. backed the dictator Siad Barre throughout the 1980's right up until the time of his demise. A civil war ensued over the next two years that led to about a third of a million deaths. That's what led George Bush, Sr. to, in one the last acts of his presidency, authorize a military response to try to break the back of that famine that had swept across the country as a result of the civil conflict.

As we all know then, the U.S. got more and more heavily involved. We shifted from a humanitarian to a political objective and, at the end, became an active participant in the civil war - a very ill advised strategy - and ended up with the infamous Black Hawk Down incident and running away with our tail between our legs. And that led, I think, over the next decade, to general disassociation on the part of the United States government from all affairs Somali.

And it was only in the aftermath of the embassy bombings in 1998 in Kenya and Tanzania, and then after the threat of al-Qaida's penetration in Somalia became more and more apparent, that we started to more engagement mostly by the CIA.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Now, break this down for us. Most countries, I guess, except Somalia you're saying, have governments. Somalia does not; instead you have warlords and warring factions. The U.S. is backing some of them, and the U.S. backed ones are losing. Is that correct, and please explain?

Mr. PRENDERGAST: Yes. Generally, that's correct. The U.S. isn't really -- the objective of the United States government is not to establish a government of these warlords. They simply want to very narrowly use the warlords that we're paying to survey the territory in Mogadishu and looking for particular suspects of terrorist attacks.

Watch these guys, see where they're moving and, at times, to actually try to snatch them. The policy has ignored the context in which this kind of surveil and snatch strategy has unfolded. So we haven't paid much attention to the fact that the very warlords that we're supporting are perceived to be, by most Somalia's, to be part of the problem, not the solution.

These guys are all human rights abusers who have contributed to the anarchy that is Somalia today. And so I think that the policy has really backfired. I mean, now that the warlords that we supported have been driven out of Mogadishu, we now have no access whatsoever to the al-Qaida suspects that we were trying to capture. And we've, in fact, increased popular sentiment in support of the Islamic groups that are harboring the terrorists in Mogadishu.

CHIDEYA: There seems to be cycle of us supporting - as a nation - unpopular, if not rogue elements, in order to control other unpopular if not rogue elements. Is that a good strategy? Shouldn't at some point the U.S. reconsider it?

Mr. PRENDERGAST: I mean, this cycle continues to be repeated; it's remarkable. It's also not surprising. The people that crafted our Cold War strategy supporting the kind of groups in Afghanistan and other places in 1980's are back again. This is where most of the Bush administration senior officials learned their foreign policy ropes was in the context of the Cold War, where we supported strong men and supported these kind of rogue elements. It's an abject failure of a policy. It was then; we installed dictators and kept them in power and it led to massive human rights abuses and state collapse in many places around Africa.

Well, we're back again with the same strategy, sadly. There's been no engagement whatsoever by the Bush administration in trying to rebuild the government in Somalia. And they basically site how much humanitarian aid that we provide in the form of band-aids as a sort of evidence that the U.S. cares about the Somali people. It doesn't work. The Somali people are - the Somalis see right through that. If we're going to counter terrorism, we have to do that. They just can't shy away from these kinds of very difficult tasks.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned the Bush administration perhaps ignoring the lessons of the last 20 years. But you were part of the Clinton administration, and during that time, the administration bombed the Sudan, which had harbored Osama bin Laden. Did the Clinton administration actually forward the ball in terms of trying to squash al-Qaida, or is there some blame there, as well?

Mr. PRENDERGAST: I think it's a bipartisan failure in places in peripheral zones around the globe, where we're increasingly understanding both Republicans and Democrats that it is in our national security interest to care about what is happening in these places. But the old arguments that we just have to care on the basis of humanitarian need never drove the policy to go in the right direction. But I think, as there is increasing awareness of the dangers of leaving these places alone, I think we'll see increased engagement over time. And I think that understanding is definitely a bipartisan one, it's to engage in places which are very, very difficult; which most Americans are like, what would we even be having an interest in doing?

This is where elected political leadership has to lead rather than follow, got to roll up our sleeves and get involved.

CHIDEYA: John Prendergast, thank you very much.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with John Prendergast, Senior Adviser at the International Crisis Group. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.