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Working with warlords

May 25, 2006

IN SOMALIA, IT'S NOT MERELY STUPID to assume that the enemy of your enemy is your friend. It's liable to get you killed. Yet the United States appears to be supporting one group of Somali warlords, who have repackaged themselves as secular anti-terrorists, to fight another group of equally brutal Islamist Somali warlords.

The U.S. involvement, an open secret since 2002, became undeniable this month after fighting between the two sides killed at least 140 people in Mogadishu. Last week, White House and State Department spokesmen didn't bother, even when asked, to shoot down reports that the U.S. is backing one of the warring militias -- thus backhandedly confirming that the Somalia operation had White House approval. (John R. Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, did deny that the United States had violated a U.N. embargo on sending arms to Somalia. Cynics say that means the U.S. gave the warlords cash instead of guns.)

The Bush administration fears that Al Qaeda operatives and "foreign fighters" are profiting from Somalia's chaos to establish a beachhead in the strategic Horn of Africa. Even if these concerns are valid, arming thugs to fight a proxy war against Islamists is a clumsy game the U.S. is likely to lose.

It's one thing to offer rewards for the capture of terrorists in Somalia, as the United States has done elsewhere with Osama bin Laden. It's quite another to shower coldblooded killers with cash in hopes of inducing them to hand over terrorist suspects. Yet the Nation newspaper in Nairobi published an article about a "clandestine trip" by U.S. agents to Mogadishu, where they reportedly handed out millions to warlords to help identify members of Al Qaeda said to be involved in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and hiding in Somalia. The money presumably comes from the $100 million the U.S. has earmarked for counterterrorism efforts in East Africa.

Ideology, Islamic or otherwise, has never been much of a factor in Somalia's ugly conflicts. But with $100 million up for grabs, opportunistic warlords have been only too happy to give themselves a name to appeal to American deep pockets: the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism. Do their hapless U.S. sponsors hope to find an Ahmad Chalabi hiding under a technical, ready to lead a united Somalia?

Not likely. The emergence of a suddenly well-armed force with overt links to Uncle Sam has had the predictable effect of uniting the heretofore fractious Islamists against their common enemies. Now they are more dangerous than before.

National security advisor Stephen Hadley, a veteran of decades of mostly failed Third World proxy battles with the Soviet Union, should put a stop to this silliness now. Instead, the U.S. should stick to its policy of trying to help create a government that can finally end the anarchy in Somalia.

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