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The thorn in the Horn of Africa

To combat the Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgencies like Somalia's, the US should support African peacekeepers.

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The next few weeks should reveal whether the US, Ethiopia, and other African allies face an Iraqi-type and Al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgency in Somalia – or the gradual stabilization, however imperfect, of a state and society whose people have known little peace or well-being for generations.

At stake is not just the stability of the Horn of Africa, but the broader effort to keep Al Qaeda and Islamists from exploiting failed or weak states.

US and possibly Ethiopian air strikes this week have taken aim at Islamist guerrilla sites in Somalia, an apparently successful effort to target suspects wanted for the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of two US embassies in East Africa. Wednesday, a top Somali official said US troops were needed on the ground to weed out remaining extremists – and he said he expects them soon.

The US should support African peacekeepers, but it would be ill-advised to send major military forces in a bid for stability.

In the final days of 2006, the Ethiopians, with superior military power, decisively helped restore the authority of Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi's shaky transitional government, which is backed by the US and many Western and African nations. Now, they are confronting the same dilemma American forces face in Iraq.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and anyone advising him has two alternatives. One is to maintain an expensive (if at least partly US-financed) occupation of Somalia – a traditionally adversarial neighbor. The second is to seek to avoid a full-scale jihad-type war in Africa's Horn by withdrawing Ethiopian forces.

Such a war could involve not only Somalia and Ethiopia, but others such as Eritrea, another inimical neighbor of Ethiopia that has been arming Somali Islamists, and Al-Qaeda-backed Somali Islamists, now underground and said by Mr. Gedi's government to be preparing for terrorism and guerrilla war.

Rapid Ethiopian withdrawal could trigger renewal of vicious sectarian fighting that has periodically torn Somalia since the fall of dictator Siad Barre in 1991. But staying on (as Gedi has hinted he wishes to do) will give Al Qaeda a cause and easy targets for the insurgency – which its deputy master, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently called for in a proclamation widely heard and acknowledged by Islamists in the region.

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