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Somalia: what is to be done?

The west must act carefully to stabilise the world's most failed state.

African Union soldiers fire off during heavy firefight with Al-Shabaab militants in May
Source: Getty Images

Somalia is a failed state, probably the most failed state in the world. While Somaliland and autonomous Puntland in the north maintain their own order, the south of the country has had no rule of law to speak of since the collapse of central government in 1991. Into that vacuum, an Islamist youth movement called Al-Shabaab has exploded, promising much-needed order but delivering only violence, repression and a particularly repellent form of Sharia law.

Al-Shabaab's edicts are as capricious as those of any psychopath autocrat. At the height of the famine in July they outlawed the eating of samosas because their tri-cornered shape reminded them of the Christian holy trinity. Bras are considered an offence to Allah. So is football.

More seriously, they turned this year's drought into one of the worst famines East Africa has seen, pushing hundreds of thousands to the point of starvation by closing roads and denying foreign aid teams access to territory under their control - the vast majority of the country.

Ahmen Abdi Godane, one of the founders of Al-Shabaab in 2006 and its de facto leader, has led them away from the nationalist promises on which they gained territorial control and towards what he sees as a global jihad. He cares nothing for his people, just his holy war.

Piracy is a symptom of desperation, not necessarily directly linked to Al-Shabaab; though much of the proceeds from this theft and kidnapping operation, a matter of hundreds of millions of dollars every year, will most likely find its way into their coffers. Like terrorism and fundamentalism, it has thrived on the chaos that engulfs the nation and, in the Gulf of Aden, we are spending vast sums on a losing battle. The EU's Operation Atlanta, the joint task force and NATO missions cost two billion dollers every year, and a December 2010 study by the think tank One Earth Future estimated the total economic cost of piracy at between seven and twelve billion dollars per year.

Kenya and Ethiopia, neighbours to the west and north of Shabaab-controlled territory, the victims, as well as Uganda, of numerous suicide and car bomb attacks, have had enough. 2,000 Kenyan soldiers are pushing north into Shabaab-controlled territory, fighting alongside Somali militias loyal to the struggling transitional government in Mogadishu. Ethiopia announced last week that it would deploy troops to assist the Kenyan mission.

But Ethiopia and Kenya's aims are mixed, their public divided, their resources limited. If Al-Shabaab is truly to be toppled, as it must be, the west needs to lend serious and careful assistance. Post-famine, support for Al-Shabaab is at a low ebb: they are vulnerable to pressure especially if humanitarian aid is coming too. The hearts and minds - and more importantly, the stomachs - of the Somali people have no instinctive loyalty to brutal fundamentalism and jihad. They want food, and safety.

But the consequences of a brief, abortive badly-funded revenge mission by Kenya and Ethiopia into Shabaab territory are not pleasant: large civilian casualties, leading to a consolidation of power for the terrorist insurgency, as was seen in Iraq. This situation must be avoided.

Instead, the EU and the US should offer logistical, consultative and financial help to the Kenyan and Ethiopian forces, and the struggling transitional Somali forces, as the US already is with the African Union mission in Mogadishu.

These things must be done carefully. Western financial backing can set up the government as a lucrative prize for the corrupt, and a revenge-led military intervention which sees civilians dead, raped or mutilated will drive people straight into the arms of terrorist recruiters.

But if the west is unwilling to invest in helping stabilise Somalia so that some sort of peace, stability, even democracy can grow, we will come to keenly regret it in the long run.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance journalist writing on politics and world affairs. He tweets at @NickyWoolf.