Somalia has been the paradigm of failed states since before 1993, when militants shot down two Black Hawk helicopters and killed 18 American soldiers in Mogadishu. One of the world's poorest, most violent countries, it has been pummeled by warring militias, famine and pirates.
But the country recently has shown enough positive movement that the Obama administration last week hosted President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in Washington and recognized Somalia's government for the first time in more than two decades. The evolution is worth examining as the West tries to grapple with militants in Mali.
The election of Mohamud, a moderate political activist and academic, by Parliament in September ended eight years of corrupt and failed transitional governments. Backed by a new constitution, he has started building governing institutions with a focus on security, on delivering public services and on judicial and financial reform. Investment from the Somalian diaspora, Turkey and elsewhere is coming back. So are foreign embassies.
None of this would have happened if the security situation had not also improved. Since 2006, the country has been torn by an insurgency led by the militant group al-Shabab, which claims allegiance with al-Qaida. But since 2011, African Union troops, backed by American drone and aircraft strikes on targeted militant leaders, have pushed al-Shabab out of the capital and other key towns. Washington has poured $650 million into the African Union force over the last six years and spent hundreds of millions more on humanitarian and development assistance for Somalia.
The decision to recognize the Somali government was a reasonable move that will open the door to other American and international aid and may make Mohamud's political adversaries think twice about trying to throw him out. But it would be a mistake to read too much into the progress that has been made. The government is weak and doesn't control much territory beyond the capital. Its army is virtually nonexistent. Al-Shabab still lurks as a dark force. If the African Union force, and especially Kenyan and Ugandan troops, left Somalia anytime soon, the gains could all be lost. It remains to be seen whether competing warlords and clans can ever cooperate to build a real state. Mohamud needs to follow through on a U.N. plan for reconciliation.
It is early to draw firm conclusions, and there are many differences, but Somalia may offer some cautionary advice for the fight now being waged by France at the other end of the African continent against militants in Mali. Degrading militants is likely to take years. Regional forces, rather than foreign forces from farther afield, are best positioned to lead the fight. And political progress is at least as important as military gains.