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Obama Administration Asked to Change Course on Somalia


A new report calls on the Obama administration to overhaul its strategy on Somalia. The Enough Project says President Obama has inherited a dangerous and fast-moving crisis in Somalia with profound implications for regional and international security.

Co-chair John Prendergast says a more comprehensive, long-range strategy is needed. He spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about what he believes needs to be done.

"It's time to reverse course, pretty much 180 degrees from the Bush policy. The policy of the previous administration was solely focused on counter-terrorism and had no interest in the Somali situation itself, the internal dynamics. And, of course, people realized that and the minute they realize that they will no longer cooperate with our agenda if we're not interested in their agenda of state building," he says.

Prendergast says that the United States should have a policy that aids the building of a "viable, functioning state in Somalia that can be a partner to deal with the issues that interest us and interests the Somali people."

He says that in the long run such a policy would be a better counter-terrorism strategy than that of the Bush administration, which supported "warlords with suitcases full of money or by backing the Ethiopians to go in militarily to try to…pacify the country."

Prendergast looks favorably on the election of a Sheik Sharif as the new president of the Transitional Federal Government. "We need to support the United Nations and the neighboring countries and other entities that are interested in supporting the expansion of that governing entity over the course of the next year," he says.

He acknowledges the power of the Islamist hard-line militia al Shabab, which the Bush administration had labeled a terrorist organization. "They're going to control parts of southern Somalia. That's just a reality. So, what will counter the spread of extremism in Somalia is a patient coalition building between all of the clans, including all of the clans and sub-clans and ideological groups," he says.

The report calls upon the United States to use "humility" in its approach to Somalia. Prendergast says, "We keep trying to build Rome in a day. Over the last 16, 17 years, since the state collapsed…we keep trying to cobble these paper coalitions together and then ramming them down the throat of the Somali polity and no one accepts it. Anyone who's ever been involved in any Somali-led political process or a process of conflict resolution knows these require months and months of patient interest trading. And we have to sit in the back seat here and say every once in a while, Is there anything we can do to help? How can we be supportive, instead of driving in the front seat and grabbing the steering wheel all the time."

Asked whether there should be a timetable for the Obama administration to act, he says, "There is an understanding within the new administration here in Washington that a lot of issues can't be put on the back burner, that they'll just rear their head and be much uglier down the road. We saw with the appointments of Dick Holbrooke and George Mitchell a seriousness of purpose with respect to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East and those kinds of questions. We're hoping and pressing and urging the new administration to make some kind of a decision with respect to the deployment of senior diplomats for issues like Sudan, Somalia and Congo."

Prendergast says he like to see those appointments sooner than six months.

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