Former diplomats and Horn of Africa experts are warning that U.S.-led efforts to stabilize Somalia through the deployment of an African peacekeeping force are likely to backfire, unless the country's weak and fractured interim government can first be transformed into a credible representative government of national unity. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu has the story from our East Africa Bureau in Nairobi.
Last week, the commander of the Ethiopian army in Somalia, Seon Hugos, told reporters in Mogadishu that some of his troops had begun leaving the Somali capital to return home. The general said he had been ordered by the government in Addis Ababa to withdraw because the army has completed its mission in Somalia.
That mission was to help Somalia's secular-but-weak transitional federal government, known as the TFG, re-take Mogadishu and much of southern Somalia from fundamental Islamist leaders who had ruled for nearly seven months before being chased out of power a month ago.
Ethiopia is believed to have tens of thousands of troops in Somalia.
A former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, David Shinn, tells VOA that while the initial troop pull-out by Ethiopia appears to be limited to about a third of its forces, it believes it has little choice but to begin reducing its military presence in Somalia.
"One, it is getting to be very costly to maintain troops there and, two, I think they understand that the longer the Ethiopian troops remain inside Somalia, the more animosity it creates with Somalis," he said.
For the past month, Ethiopian troops, particularly in Mogadishu, have come under near-daily attacks by Somalis who view Ethiopia as a traditional enemy to resist at all costs.
But neighboring and western countries say they are worried that remnants of the Islamic Courts Union and their supporters could stage a comeback without a robust military to defend the transitional government.
A senior analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, Dave Mazursky, says the international community, which supports the two-year-old interim government, has reasons to be concerned.
The transitional government was largely formed among factional leaders who kept Somalia lawless and without a functioning government for more than 15 years. Mazursky says top government leaders, including President Abdullahi Yusuf and Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, are still deeply split along clan lines and have shown little enthusiasm to be inclusive and to broaden the government's appeal.
"The conditions that led to the rise of the courts in the first place are already re-creating themselves," he said. "And by that, I mean a very splintered and divided government with international legitimacy and recognition, but lacking the capacity and credibility to really administer on the ground. Without dealing with the more fundamental problems of governance of the country as the first and key step, then, conditions will be set for an opposition to emerge."
U.S. officials say they are most worried that despite two separate air strikes in the past month, they have failed to kill any of the radical Islamist leaders and their al-Qaida allies, who fled to the south of the country before the Ethiopians arrived in Mogadishu.
Moreover, several thousand members of their once-powerful Islamist militia remain in the capital and elsewhere in the country, seething with anger and resentment.
To stabilize Somalia, the United States has begun intensively lobbying members of the 53-member African Union to contribute troops toward a peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu. The force, to be deployed as soon as possible, is to be about 8,000-strong with a mission mandate of six months.
At the same time, the United States has offered to give $40 million, mostly in humanitarian aid, to the interim government. The condition is that government leaders must show real progress toward neutralizing factional leaders and building a government that includes all elements of Somali society, including Islamists who opposed them.
International Crisis Group's Dave Mazursky says while he agrees with the United States' dual-track approach to Somalia, he says the priority being given to the peacekeeping mission is potentially dangerous.
"A peacekeeping force there to support the TFG is only going to have as much credibility as the TFG has," he said. "So, if the TFG is able to rebuild itself as a representative government of national unity, then the African Union peacekeeping force is going to have an important role to play. If the TFG fails to do that, then the African Union peacekeeping force will be seen as a partisan external body and will, with time, be seen as an invasion force by those opposed to the TFG."
Ambassador David Shinn says he agrees that the United States first needs to focus its attention on ways to increase Somali support for the interim government.
"I think the United States is working very hard to get an African Union force in Mogadishu," he said. "That is all well and good. But it is just not going to happen as fast as it needs to happen, and I think the United States should recognize that fact. The real effort now needs to be about expanding the credibility of the transitional federal government and making sure it takes the right steps in order to create a government that is more inclusive than it is at the moment."
Meanwhile, there are reports that the Ethiopian army in Somalia is being debilitated by malaria and losing its ability to maintain its supply lines into the country.
Worried Somali government officials say Ethiopia's exit from their country could come not in months, but in weeks.