The future of Somalia and its 8 million people is totally unscripted. This unbearable lack of certainty, of a way forward, accommodates little hope.

Ethiopian and U.S. actions have eroded Somalis’ hidebound allegiance to their clans, once a firewall against al-Qaida’s global ideology, says Matt Bryden, a Somali intelligence expert. Somalia’s two million-strong diaspora is of greatest concern. Angry young men, foreign passports in hand, could be lured back to the reopened Shabab training camps, where instructors occasionally use photocopied portraits of Bush as rifle targets.

Some envision no Somalia at all.

With about $8 billion in humanitarian aid fire-hosed into the smoking ruins of Somalia since the early 1990s – the U.S. will donate roughly $200 million this year alone – a growing chorus of policymakers is advocating that the failed state be allowed to fail, to break up into autonomous zones or fiefdoms, such as Somaliland.

But there is another possible future for Somalia.

To see it, you must go to Bosaso, a port 300 miles east of Isse’s cell.

Bosaso is an escape hatch from Somalia. Thousands of people swarm through the town’s scruffy waterfront every year, seeking passage across the Gulf of Aden to the Middle East. Dressed in rags, they sleep by the hundreds in dirt alleys and empty lots. Stranded women and girls are forced into prostitution.

“You can see why we still need America’s help,” said Abdinur Jama, the coast guard commander for Puntland, the semiautonomous state encompassing Bosaso. “We need training and equipment to stop this.”

Dapper in camouflage and a Yankees cap, Jama was a rarity in Somalia, an optimist. While Bosaso’s teenagers shook their fists at high-flying U.S. jets on routine patrols – “Go to hell!” they chanted – Jama still spoke well of international engagement in Somalia.

On a morning when he offered to take visitors on a coast patrol, it did not seem kind to tell him what a U.S. military think tank at West Point had concluded about Somalia last year: that, in some respects, failed states were admirable places to combat al-Qaida, because the absence of local sovereignty permitted “relatively unrestricted Western counterterrorism efforts.”

After all, Jama’s decrepit patrol boat was sinking.

A crew member scrambled to stanch a yard-high geyser of seawater that spurted through the cracked hull. Jama screwed his cap on tighter and peered professionally at land that, despite Washington’s best-laid plans, has turned far more desperate than Afghanistan.

“Can you swim?” Jama asked. But it hardly seemed to matter.

Back on dry land, in Somalia, an entire country was drowning.

– Paul Salopek

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