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On Point

Somalia: Planet's Foremost "Failed State"


by Austin Baydiplomatic issue -- if Somalia mimicked Julius Caesar's assessment of Gaul and merely split into three parts.

It doesn't. Anarchic Somalia is arguably the planet's foremost "failed state," with Afghanistan and the Congo as basket-case competitors. Find a sub-clan with a savvy leader, or a gang on a street corner, and you have what passes for governing structure in much of Mogadishu and its environs.

As Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz noted, Somalia attracts Al Qaeda "precisely because the government is weak or nonexistent." American counter-terror "options" there are limited, Wolfowitz added, since "by definition you don't have a government you can work with."

Thus, in the near term, the United States will work with Somali opposition factions such as the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC). The clan leaders and warlords in the SRRC are, for the moment, lining up against the self-proclaimed (and Al Qaeda-infected) "national government" in Mogadishu. U.S. intelligence and military coordination with such anti-Islamist groups offers a potentially effective means for quickly destroying Al Qaeda cells and sympathizers in Somalia.

In the long term, however, America must do better than leave Somalia's "failed state" to recurrent chaos. We've learned, too painfully, that these hard, wretched corners can't be neglected. If the locals in these failed states were truly left to their own devices, that becomes one kind of problem -- the kind more yielding to checkbooks and compassion. But Osama Bin Laden has demonstrated that terrorists with money and guns don't ignore the hard corners. Bucks-up zealots spread their own brand of "imperialism," imposing their hate-filled "values" upon vulnerable and frightened people.

Which brings us back to Caesar and Gaul. Check the maps. There are indeed three Somalias. No, don't refer to a current atlas neatly portraying Somalia as a contiguous political entity enfolding the Horn of Africa, but examine those maps drawn by Somalis that reflect the fractured present and indicate possible geo-political alternatives.

Somalilandnet.com (website of the Somaliland Republic) carves a separate nation out of northwestern Somalia, with borders strikingly similar to those of what was once called British Somaliland. Somaliland held a plebiscite in May 2001 to "ratify" its independence.

The website of the Somali National Educational Trust (snet.click2site.com) depicts Puntland. Remember the Land of Punt? Egyptian Queen Hapshetsut sent an expedition to Punt in the 15th century B.C. This 21st century A.D. "Puntland" is north of Mogadishu on the "elbow" of the Horn of Africa. Puntland claimed independence from "Mogadishu control" in 1998.

Would that these two fractal-states were free from threat and strife. They aren't. Trouble hit Puntland last August, and now two factions struggle for control. Though the Somaliland Republic depicts itself as a land of "democracy and the rule of law," that status is fragile. The two statelets are, however, more stable than Mogadishu. They also reflect (to some degree) the desire of their inhabitants to shake the anarchy that has plagued Somalia for a decade.

So "three Somalias" isn't quite as phony a notion as one. These nascent states may offer long-term possibilities for fostering a more stable Horn of Africa. The concept is to reinforce the "more stable" and then use them as a platform to spread stability.

Of course, reinforcing the more stable regions could lead to permanent separation and new borders.

But in Somalia's case, is that so bad? Every failed state has unique problems, which means no single policy can resolve them. The issue of bad borders, however -- either as relics of colonialism or of longstanding antagonisms -- crops up continually.

Drawing new boundaries in Africa has been anathema, where the problem is particularly acute. As bad as the borders are, most African leaders concluded the process of drawing new ones might unleash even more violence. Sticking with the old borders boxed in deadlier possibilities.

But the Congo's collapse and Somalia's terrorist-breeding anarchy demonstrate that the deadlier "what-ifs" are already among us.

Rooting out Al Qaeda is Washington's immediate goal, but the problem of bad borders or phony states can no longer be ignored.

Should Somalia divide into three parts? Yes, if it means better borders. Perhaps there's a Nobel Prize for the secretary of state who sees in Somalia an opportunity to demonstrate it's possible to evolve more responsive and more stable political entities from the morass of a chronically flawed post-colonial state, and in doing so eliminate fertile territory for terrorists.

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