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What's Behind the U.S. Strike in Somalia?

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's go to next to Ken Menkhaus. He's a Somalia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina and he has been following this story through the night. Mr. Menkhaus, good morning, sir.

Professor KEN MENKHAUS (Political Science, Davidson College): Good morning.

INSKEEP: Is this a big change for the United States?

Prof. MENKHAUS: This is. This is an unexpected escalation of U.S. involvement in what had been a strictly Ethiopian affair with, as the journalists have been putting it, tacit U.S. approval.

INSKEEP: Let's remember the details here. Somalia is a country that is obviously deeply fractured. There's a lot of fighting going on. Ethiopian troops have moved in. There's concerns about al-Qaida and now we have American gun ships overhead.

Prof. MENKHAUS: That's correct. What Ethiopia was hoping to do, and what it did beyond its wild expectations, was to drive the Union of Islamic Courts out of power. What has happened is we all expected the Union of Islamic Courts to fall back to Mogadishu and fight Ethiopian forces in an asymmetrical urban guerilla war such as what we saw in 1993 with Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu.

Instead, unexpectedly, the Islamists lost local support in Mogadishu and were forced to flee south into this very remote part of the Somali-Kenyan border area where these events are now happening.

INSKEEP: Why do you think the United States would act now?

Prof. MENKHAUS: I think this is opportunistic. It's an ad hoc strategy. When the situation presented itself with some of these foreign al-Qaida suspects fleeing into this area, U.S., Kenyan and Ethiopian authorities appear to have suddenly coordinated military policy very closely to seal the border off with Kenya so they didn't infiltrate Kenya and also to control of the seas.

INSKEEP: You mentioned sudden coordination. I do know that U.S. military officials have been active in other parts of that region. Is this something that the U.S. has been laying the groundwork for for a while even though they may have grabbed a quick opportunity?

Prof. MENKHAUS: Well, this is one of the stories that we'll have to see as evidence starts to present itself. What we think happened is that this was primarily an Ethiopian initiative the U.S. initially discouraged them from taking on the grounds that we believed it was likely to make Ethiopia less rather more secure. But once the Ethiopian intervention went as well as it did, that's where I think we started seeing much more coordination between the three states.

INSKEEP: What does the Somali government say about this foreign intervention?

Prof. MENKHAUS: The Transitional Federal Government is a very close ally, some would say a client, of Ethiopia. And its president as of this morning expressed approval of the American air strikes.

INSKEEP: OK. Now how does all this fit in with the broader U.S. concerns about East Africa and al-Qaida in East Africa?

Prof. MENKHAUS: Somalia, as a potential safe haven for a small number of foreign al-Qaida operatives, has always been at the top of U.S. concerns in East Africa. The concern is not so much what they do in Somalia, because there's really very little to target inside Somalia. The concern has always been that these foreign al-Qaida suspects could infiltrate and do infiltrate into Kenya and other parts of East Africa to attack Western and American targets. And one of the dangers now with the current situation is that we may have cells of residual Somali Shebab militia, the Islamist militia that could take matters into their own hands and launch some of these terrorist attacks.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the dangers for the United States here. You mentioned the potential upside; it's a chance, perhaps an opportunistic chance, to hit some suspects that the U.S. has been looking at. Is there a danger for the United States in getting too involved in this convoluted situation?

Prof. MENKHAUS: Well, as long as the United States stays in the air, the danger of getting drawn into another Black Hawk Down is relatively remote. The bigger danger is that the U.S. is going to be held accountable by the population in Somalia and East Africa for a policy that, in pursuit of a small number of foreign al-Qaida suspects, resulted in widespread warfare and the collapse of an administration in Mogadishu.

It will appear to local populations as a disproportionate policy, and the United States government needs to make it very clear to the residents of East Africa that this was not in fact part of a grander strategy, they were going to pull down all of the governance in Mogadishu just to apprehend five people.

INSKEEP: And just very briefly, how far away is this country from anything that you would describe as stability?

Prof. MENKHAUS: It's very far away now, further away now than it was in November. I suspect that the outcome of all of this is going to be renewed state collapse in Somalia for several years to come at least.

INSKEEP: Mr. Menkhaus, thanks for talking with us this morning.

Prof. MENKHAUS: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Ken Menkhaus is a political science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina.

And again the news we have is that an official and a witness say there have been at least two U.S. air strikes on different locations against terror targets inside Somalia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.