WASHINGTON — In the six months before U.S. troops pull out of Somalia, the most that President Clinton may be able to achieve in his quest for a political solution to the country's troubles is restoration of local rule in Somalia's larger cities, along with a general agreement on further talks.
Even this limited progress hinges on the skill with which Washington shifts mediation responsibilities away from the United Nations, now hated by many Somalis, to leaders of other East African nations, U.S. and former U.N. analysts say.
And most analysts agree that there is virtually no chance that mediators can end the clan rivalries that date back to the nomadic origins of the clans themselves, or heal the rift that has effectively divided northern and southern Somalia into two countries.
At least partial easing of clan hostility is essential to political reconciliation and U.N. withdrawal.
Under the best-case scenario, analysts say, national authority would remain fractured if not nonexistent, but local rule might be re-established in Mogadishu, Kismayu and inland centers, which could function as a series of city-states within the battered country.
The obstacles to achieving this limited success are enormous in a country riven by factionalism and devastated by war, famine and social disintegration. And if mediation should fail, experts warn, Somalia could be plunged back into the brutal anarchy that first moved the United States and others to intervene.
Given the widespread hostility toward the United Nations in Somalia, one critical need in any process of reconciliation will be creation of a security system that includes Somali citizens, said Pauline Baker, an expert on Africa and an associate director of the Aspen Institute in Washington.
"A local police force has to be created so there's Somali participation in restoring and then maintaining law and order so that it is not perceived as being imposed entirely by foreign forces," she said.
Another key element, in the view of former U.N. envoy Mohammed Sahnoun, who worked on reconciliation before being fired by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali a year ago, is restoring the traditional authority exercised by clan elders.
These elders were the leaders in a Somali society dominated by the powerful ties of clan, sub-clan and family. They remain widely respected but have been largely superseded in recent years by the armed factions loyal to Somalia's many warlords and bandit leaders--some of whom, as in the case of Mohammed Farah Aidid, represent sub-clan or other groups and some of whom are merely lawless opportunists.
"To reconstruct society, you must get back to the role of the elders and promote them and the intellectuals and merchants, who all can go across the border lines of the clans," Sahnoun said.
"Unlike the warlords, they have an interest in a solution to the Somali question and they have the power to help, to eventually check the warlords," he said.
Helping them open up radio stations and newspapers will shape a revived political culture no longer dominated by warlords and guns.
Before they can get to such basic issues of restructuring, however, mediators must tackle the question of what to do with the clan leaders besides Aidid.
While Aidid has clashed violently with U.S. and U.N. forces, the others have largely stayed out of the spotlight in recent months. But they retain formidable armed strength.
Some analysts contend that these warlords will eventually have to be factored in; others suggest excluding them outright. Either way, they should all be treated equally so that no clan constituency feels threatened, experts agree.
Indeed, analysts believe that part of the reason for the recent attacks on peacekeeping forces is a growing conviction among Aidid's followers that the United Nations favors other warlords over him.
Initial mediation efforts are expected to center on a tentative agreement reached last March during talks in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. That accord set up a gradual state-building procedure that was to begin at the local level and work its way up to a national government.
With the exception of Aidid, Somalia's warlords have basically supported the agreement.
"This is a germ of a process already in existence that could work," said Terrence Lyons, a senior research analyst in African affairs at the Brookings Institution.
The agreement also laid out a basic formula for selection of delegates to a national assembly that would combine territorial or proportional representation with factional participation. But most analysts believe that such a step lies well beyond Clinton's time frame for American involvement.
"Somalis probably won't be ready for a general election of any kind for a year or more," said Gray Cowan, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.