When Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia last December and forced out Taliban-style Islamists, it looked as though for the first time in 16 years a central government could take root. Leaders of the weak but internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (TFG) tried to take control of Mogadishu. Four months later, they are still trying.
Disputes have now settled along Somalia's familiar clan fault lines. Sporadic fighting in Mogadishu intensified in early April as the government and Ethiopian troops fought an insurgency of Hawiye sub-clans long established in the capital. Blurry lines between them and the ousted Islamic Courts Union also complicate matters: Clan leaders set up some of Mogadishu's courts and are now giving succor to members who have crept back.
The renewed fighting has forced the transitional government to postpone a national reconciliation conference planned for this month. The TFG would not survive without the protection of Ethiopian forces, who should have left by now in favor of a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping force. Now many Somalis see the government as a proxy of Ethiopia, a longtime enemy of Somalia.
The TFG, which formed its administration in Kenya in 2004, also suffers skepticism for incorporating former warlords as leaders, including President Abudullahi Yusuf. The test they face now is whether they can secure Mogadishu and make the reconciliation conference count by negotiating with detractors. U.S. officials want them to succeed because of reported al-Qaeda terrorists hiding in Somalia, and even launched air strikes in southern Somalia to ferret them out.
With its precarious perch, securing Mogadishu is tough work for the TFG. One official, ambassador to Kenya Mohamed Ali Nur, says they cannot afford to fail. To illustrate why, he tells the story of an unusual 2005 Mogadishu visit he made with Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi.
Gedi is a Hawiye and, unlike some other transitional leaders, was not a warlord. When he visited Mogadishu, his government was based in the town of Baidoa, its leaders often too afraid to set foot in the capital.
Gedi traveled the streets in a heavily guarded convoy of cars, while Somalis on the roadsides cheered. He spotted two boys in the crowd, about 12 years old, carrying AK-47s. To his security guards' dismay, Gedi ordered his driver to stop so he could walk over to the boys.
"Why do you have guns?" he asked them. "Do you go to school?"
The boys said no: They were born after 1991, when warlords overthrew dictator Mohamad Siad Barre. Mogadishu turned so dangerous, local fighters killed 18 U.S. servicemen on a 1993 mission to restore order, an incident that inspired withdrawal and the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down.
"This is what we know," the boys said. "The gun is the only thing that can bring food for us."
Gedi asked what the government could do, and the boys asked for rehabilitation and a chance to attend school. Back in the car, Nur told WORLD, "I could see from his face that he was really moved." Stability must rule for Somalis to give up their guns, but Nur said, "It will take some time until things change."
In Djibouti, a small African coastal nation on the southern tip of the Red Sea, sits the most strategically significant U.S. military base that you've never heard of. For almost five years, 2,000 men and women stationed at the Combined Joint Task Force--Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) have been "waging peace," as one former commander said, across a realm of deserts and coastline five times the size of Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Here at Camp Lemonier is headquartered the largest U.S. military base in Africa. It's dedicated to detecting and defeating transnational Islamic terrorism. The Horn of Africa command covers seven African countries (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, and Uganda) and one Arabian nation, Yemen. Over 167 million people live in these eight countries, and half are Muslim.
Focus on the U.S. military presence in Africa increased this month when President Bush approved a new Africa Command-a clear response to the stepped-up strategic importance of what was once the most neglected continent in what Pentagon officials call "the long war." The change would move the Djibouti CJTF from the overstretched Central Command to the new command.
It would not alter the real work happening at Camp Lemonier and on small bases throughout eastern Africa, which is not only challenging and complex but hard to quantify: U.S. forces are trying to prevent terrorist training camps from spreading in this part of Africa. "Terrorists will want to come to Africa because there is so much ungoverned space," said Maj. Gen. Timothy Ghormley, who commanded CJTF-HOA from May 2005 to April 2006. "These areas are perfect for al-Qaeda. They can operate with impunity, train, and get their recruits."
It's happened before. Planning for the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania took place at a major al-Qaeda base in Sudan, and the missiles used in an attack on an Israeli jet departing from Mombasa, Kenya, were smuggled from Yemen by Somali pirates. Although al-Qaeda's base in Sudan no longer exists-in 1996, bin Laden was evicted and fled to Afghanistan-jihadist leaders have openly expressed their ambition to recreate their training camps on African soil.
Since 2002 U.S. Special Forces have trained the soldiers and sailors of three countries-Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya-in skills ranging from vehicle maintenance to full-scale combat. Their goal is to strengthen internationally recognized governments and prevent al-Qaeda from taking root in lawless regions like Somalia, Sudan, and eastern Ethiopia's Ogaden Desert.
And recently, that training has been tested. In December 2006, Ethiopia, a Christian-majority nation, invaded Mogadishu, which was controlled by the Islamic Courts Union government, an ultraconservative sect that had seized power months before. With U.S. Navy ships patrolling the coasts and U.S.-trained Ethiopian forces attacking, the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government of Somalia regained power several weeks later. Somali reporters say that their influence does not extend beyond Mogadishu and Baidoa.
Although a small number of America's shadow warriors remain at work throughout the Horn, most of the task force's public efforts emphasize peaceful, humanitarian work. At Camp Lemonier, the frontline troops are doctors, nurses, veterinarians, civil engineers, and military construction workers. They dig wells, build schools, pave roads, vaccinate animals, and deliver relief supplies and medical care.
And the mission could expand. Currently, the Defense Department splits the entire world into five combatant commands, giving a four-star general responsibility for the military resources apportioned out to each respective geographic realm. To date, Africa has been awkwardly divided between the U.S. European Command based in Brussels and U.S. Central Command headquartered in Doha, Qatar. The Pentagon has proposed creating an African Command, which could further expand the size and scope of the mission at Camp Lemonier.
Whether or not that happens, Americans stationed in Djibouti will likely endure scorching desert heat for years to come as they work throughout the Horn. But in so doing, they might convince Africans that al-Qaeda's proselytizing campaign is built on a house of sand.
-David Danelo is a reporter and author of Blood Stripes: The Grunt's View of the War in Iraq.