In Washington, a US Senate panel held a hearing Wednesday on developing a coordinated and sustainable strategy toward Somalia. The Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs took testimony on "the new offensive launched by militant extremists."

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson says despite a transitional federal government in place, Somalia is in crisis.

"Approximately 43 percent of the Somali population relies on humanitarian assistance to survive and nearly 500,000 Somalis have fled the country and now live in overcrowded refugee camps throughout the region," he says.

Clans, militias, warlords and terrorist organizations control most of the country, not the Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

Carson adds, "The blight of piracy off the coast of Somalia is without question a symptom of the instability and insecurity within Somalia. Without stability in Somalia there can be no long-term resolution of the piracy problem."

The US blames much of insecurity in Somalia on the al-Shabaab militia, which it accuses ofbeing a terrorist organization. Al-Shabaab is trying to overthrow the TFG.

"The resolution of these problems calls for a comprehensive solution that provides stability,promotes reconciliation, economic opportunity and hope for the Somali people," says Carson.

The Obama administration has called on the State Department, the National Security Council,the Defense Department, USAID, intelligence agencies and other agencies to develop a Somalia strategy -- one, Carson says, "that is both comprehensive and sustainable." He says the US is also working with international partners, including the United Nations, African Union and European Union.

A strategy based on internal reconciliation

"Our comprehensive strategy is to promote a stabile and peaceful Somalia, to support regional peacekeeping efforts, to create a functioning and effective central government?to create a country that is at peace with its neighbors," he says.

Carson says the United States has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to support humanitarian and security needs in Somalia.  He also accuses Eritrea of supporting armed groups, who are opposed to the Transitional Federal Government.

Also testifying was Professor Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College, who expects the Somali crisis to be a continuing foreign policy concern for the new Obama administration.

Past US policy flawed

He says, "In this increasingly complex environment, external state building, peace building and counter-terrorism initiatives have at times been based on flawed analysis and have produced unintended consequences, which have left Somalia and its regional neighbors even more insecure."

Menkhaus says sometimes policy initiatives have been at odds.

"The US also faces the challenge of de-conflicting its multiple objectives in Somalia. Over the past decade, American counter-terrorism, state building and humanitarian initiatives have generally been unintegrated and have at times worked at cross purposes," he says.

More challenges were created by the 2007 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and subsequent occupation.

"That occupation and the destructive insurgency and counter insurgency?helped to fuel an unprecedented level of radicalism in Somali society," he says.

He says Somalis have blamed the United States for many of the problems in their country because it backed Ethiopia.

"Anti-Americanism has been very high in the country and trust of American motives and policies low. This has been ameliorated somewhat by the January 2009 Ethiopian withdrawal, the establishment of a more broad-based transitional government and Somali expectations of a shift in US policy under the Obama administration," he says.

However, Menkhaus says, "There is still a high level of mistrust of American policies and residual anger at the US."  

He adds that US policy toward Somalia must take a regional approach and consider tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the insurgency in Ethiopia's Somali region and territorial claims.

Oxfam senior policy advisor Shannon Scriber told the Senate panel that "Somalia remains the site of the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The combination of conflict and drought have led to more than three million Somalis dependent on aid within the country and the displacement of up to 1.8 million."

South and Central Somalia are the most unstable regions and the most difficult to reach.

Little water, dying animals

"Beyond the obvious humanitarian impact?the country faces drought conditions unseen since the 1991 famine?. Drought conditions continue to ravage livelihoods, particularly among pastoralist populations as livestock are dying and wasting at an alarming rate," she says.