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Opinion: Somalia's failed state victimizes world

A nexus of extremist training camps, pirates off the coast and 20 warships on patrol. It isn't just Somalis who suffer.

Sufi fighter in Somalia
A Sufi fighter stands guard behind a tree outside their military base near Bakara market in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, May 15, 2010. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

PALO ALTO, Calif. — “Failed state” is a glib phrase thrown around in foreign-policy discussions. Diplomats roll their eyes, shake their heads and earnestly hope they aren’t assigned to one.

As generally defined, a failed state is one that does not control all of its territory, provide public services, exercise authority over the state or represent it competently in international relations. Given all of that, the shorthand definition of a failed state is, Somalia.

Late last month, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, staged a conference on the Somalia problem and urged delegates from 55 nations to work with the Somali government “in its reconciliation effort and its fight against extremism.”

Why the concern right now? Ban realizes that a truly failed state isn’t a problem just for its people. No, failed states victimize the world. Look at North Korea, Pakistan, Haiti or Sudan. Each of those nations meets most if not all of the criteria. Think of the money, time, effort and trouble they cause.

Still, Somalia remains the archetypal failed state. Right now, pirates hold “the highest number of vessels ever at the Somali coast, and the U.N.-led Somalia-process has completely failed and has collapsed,” declared ECOTERRA, an Australian organization that monitors Somali piracy. As of June 2, it added, pirates held 23 foreign ships plus one barge and 436 victims, “including an elderly British yachting couple.”

In the last two years, foreign-navy warships have captured 1,090 Somali pirates, killed 64 and wounded 24 others. In fact, an unprecedented and undeclared war is underway off the Somali coast. At least 20 warships are on patrol — a naval armada from the European Union, NATO, Russia, China, the United States and Arab states, including Iran.

At the same time, Somalia is exactly the sort of place where Al Qaeda and other extremist groups love to set up their training camps. Now one watches what they do. Al Shabaab, Somalia’s principal fanatic group, has pledged its allegiance to Al Qaeda and is intent on taking control of the state — giving Al Qaeda a nation of its own. Already, Somali diplomats are warning that Al Shabaab is trying to send extremists into the U.S. through Mexico. How many ways can one state inflict its chaos and criminality on the rest of the world?

But some of Somalia’s neighbors say that is not really the point.