The Bush administration inherited a mess in strategic Somalia and may be leaving President-elect Barack Obama with a worse one.Whatever, it's my opinion that the reporter has no clue about what the U.S. strategic interests are in Somalia - which would be virtually none - and just wants to poke another stick into the departing Bush administration.
The explosion of piracy off Somalia's coast is an attention-grabbing product of internal chaos in the Horn of Africa country, and a problem that will outlast the administration's success this past week in winning U.N. backing for possible pirate-hunting raids on Somali territory.
The issue, as always, comes down to "nation-building" and any U.S. involvement in that pretty much ended when the Clinton administration withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia after suffering some military losses. One can argue that the losses were exacerbated by the lack of sufficient armored U.S. forces to support the operations of U.S. special forces - a sign of a lack of commitment in the first place.
That the Somalis have been unable or unwilling to break through their clan system to find their own path to internal peace even with extensive UN food and other aid, much of which flows from the U.S., is not really a U.S. problem. That some factions in Somalia are friendly to known anti-U.S. terror groups does not win over American hearts and minds. As the opinion piece notes:
To address Somalia's underlying problems, the U.S. and the rest of the world would have to spend money building or rebuilding basic services and structures and encourage charities, development organizations and the Somalis themselves to do the same.While I agree that the Somalis need to create a nation out of chaos, they have been given plenty opportunity and a bunch of UN/U.S. aid. The Somali clans have corrupted the process of aid delivery - hijacking overland food caravans, kidnapping and killing aid workers, hijacking aid ships. That there are millions of displaced Somalis and thousands of starving children is as true today as it was when UN forces entered Somalia in the 1990s to "restore hope":
The Obama team should also ditch the myopic view of Somalia as little more than a hatchery for Islamic terrorism, said J. Anthony Holmes, head of the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and a former top Africa official at the State Department. He was working there when terrorists trained in what had become a terrorist haven in Afghanistan struck the U.S. on Sept. 11 2001.
"There was a very serious concern that Somalia could be the next Afghanistan, and we've been reacting to that possibility ever since, but only in the most short-term respect," Holmes said. "We've been trying to kill terrorists rather than to facilitate the rebuilding of a state that would be inhospitable to terrorists."
The civil war disrupted agriculture and food distribution in southern Somalia. The basis of most of the conflicts was clan allegiances and competition for resources between the warring clans. James Bishop, the United States last ambassador to Somalia, explained that there is "competition for water, pasturage, and... cattle. It is a competition that used to be fought out with arrows and sabers... Now it is fought out with AK-47s." The resulting famine caused the United Nations Security Council in 1992 to authorize the limited peacekeeping operation United Nations Operation in Somalia I (UNOSOM I). UNOSOM's use of force was limited to self-defence and it was soon disregarded by the warring factions. In reaction to the continued violence and the humanitarian disaster, the United States organised a military coalition with the purpose of creating a secure environment in southern Somalia for the conduct of humanitarian operations. This coalition, (Unified Task Force or UNITAF) entered Somalia in December 1992 on Operation Restore Hope and was successful in restoring order and alleviating the famine. In May 1993, most of the United States troops withdrew and UNITAF was replaced by the United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II).I am unclear on how Mr. J. Anthony Holmes, "head of the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations" proposes that order be restored without a putting troops on the ground and essentially disarming and entire population while providing alternative and legitimate income sources for clans that are profiting quite nicely from the chaos they help perpetuate. In addition spending billions on Somalia is unlikely in a time when the U.S. is trying to spend its way out of a recession. Somalis and the CFR better start thinking of low cost alternatives to dumping more money into the Somali money pit.
However, Aidid saw UNOSOM II as a threat to his power and in June 1993 his militia attacked Pakistan Army troops, attached to UNOSOM II, (see Somalia (March 1992 to February 1996)) in Mogadishu inflicting over 80 casualties. Fighting escalated until 18 American troops and more than 1,000 Somalis were killed in a raid in Mogadishu during October 1993. The UN withdrew Operation United Shield in 3 March 1995, having suffered significant casualties, and with the rule of government still not restored.
As most Americans have noted, the U.S. military is otherwise occupied right now. As Gahlran at Information Dissemination has noted, the countries most affected by the Somali pirates are beginning to get the idea that the U.S. is not going to "ride to the rescue" in Somali anti-piracy operations and are sending their own, quite capable naval forces to provide anti-piracy patrols and enforcement.
I believe the most rational policy toward Somali pirates is containment, which seems to be the focus of the current effort being used to reduce piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Containment involves keeping ships well off the coast of Somalia, providing escorts for UN WFP ships, providing convoy services for merchants in designated sea lanes, patrolling the sea lanes and responding vigorously to attacks. The cost of such efforts is substantially below the cost of invading and building a real nation out of Somalia.
And I doubt very seriously that it matters who the president was or will be when the subject of Somalia pops up. It is not really a U.S. problem today - any more than it was in 1992.
UPDATE: Mark Bowden author of Blackhawk Down writes of Somalia at the WaPo:
Ould-Abdallah was still hopeful when we spoke that some sort of meaningful power-sharing arrangement will be worked out among the warlords and moderate Islamists before the Ethiopians leave. He said that he had been heartened by the participation in ongoing talks of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the former commander of the Islamist courts, though the sheikh's willingness to talk has been denounced by many who once followed his lead. Ould-Abdullah said that although the compromise he is trying to reach will probably bear the label "Islamist," it doesn't necessarily mean the imposition of radical fundamentalism.I would guess most people are not starving because of the food aid provided by the World Food Program. I guess one could ask whether the continued delivery aid into a corrupt system is somewhat akin to those who facilitate an alcoholic - does it allow the Somalis to avoid confronting their reality?
There is hope in the fact that whatever sort of central authority emerges, whether it is strictly Islamist or some U.N.-brokered coalition, will need substantial international help. The problems of food, shelter and basic health care are so pressing that without enormous humanitarian investment, Somalia will slip further into crisis.
One of the most surprising things about Somalia is that despite its broken-down state, some things do seem to work. Most people are not starving. Markets thrive. Ould-Abdallah told me he's always surprised that his cellphone works better there than in some far more stable and prosperous neighboring countries.
Mr. Bowden sees the need for engagement with Somalia to prevent further deterioration citing at the end of his piece a sort of "broken windows" theory. While I have used that anaolgy with respect to the Somali pirates, it seems to me that the internal functioning of Somalia must be left to the Somalis - as hard as that is to watch from afar. If they can make their cell phone system work, they can find a government that will work for them. When they do - aid should follow immediately.
UPDATE: Probably a good idea to review a little of what happened during the last "humanitarian intervention" in Somalia as set out in a William Finnegan piece from the New Yorker in 1995:
The alliance that overthrew Siad Barre had no dominant figure who survived, and the outside world, perhaps distracted by the Gulf War, did not try to broker a settlement. Indeed, the United Nations retained no presence whatever in Somalia for nearly a year after Siad Barre fell. And the United States had previously renounced its geostrategic stake in the region. After a few months, still heavily armed, the strongest clan militias began to fight.
Meanwhile, Siad Barre's forces, having regrouped along the border with Kenya, were attempting a comeback, and at one point battled their way to within twenty miles of Mogadishu. The famine of 1992 was the direct result of this fighting in the south. Unlike the rest of the country, southern Somalia is well watered, and for that reason it is inhabited predominantly by farmers, not nomads. The agriculturalist clans are no match militarily for their nomadic countrymen, who have always formed the bulk of the armies fighting the civil war and, hungry themselves, have systematically robbed the farming clans and driven them off their lands. Poor rainfall exacerbated the plight of the farmers: they began to starve en masse. Relief efforts were hampered by the fighting, and by increasingly brazen looting and blackmail by the armed parties, with General Aidid's forces controlling much of the famine zone. International press coverage of this impasse, and particularly the harrowing images of starving children, finally provoked, in December, 1992, the great multinational intervention, led by the United States, to open relief-supply routes. In truth, the famine was already receding by then -- death rates had been dropping for months -- but the intervention did hasten the region's recovery, saving, at least by the reckoning of its proponents, more than a hundred thousand lives.
The intervention also stopped the banditry in much of southern Somalia. To read reports from the early days of the intervention is horribly sad now, for they are full of the euphoria of war-weary Somalis at the return of a semblance of peace. The power of the warlords had been broken, many said. Plans to disarm the warring factions were initiated. They were never carried through, however, and most of the American soldiers, who constituted the backbone of the intervention -- twenty-five thousand troops in an international force of about thirty thousand -- left Somalia in April, 1993. Victor Gbeho, the last of several United Nations "special representatives" to Somalia, told me recently, "We should have had the courage to do the disarmament. The Somalis expected it, and it would have been possible." But Gbeho's own spokesman, George Bennett, disagrees. There were just too many weapons around, he says, and the warlords could always have bought new ones.
In any event, soon after the United Nations took command of the operation, in May, 1993, it began to go sour. General Aidid's forces attacked Pakistani troops in Mogadishu in June, and Admiral Jonathan Howe, then the U.N. envoy, ordered Aidid's arrest, putting a price of twenty-five thousand dollars on his head. Aidid defied the U.N., gaining public support by aligning himself with a history of Somalian resistance to Italian, British, and Ethiopian colonizers. The remaining American airborne units led the increasingly violent search for Aidid, bombing and strafing suspected hideouts, and killing more than a thousand civilians. One disastrous raid in October left eighteen U.S. Army Rangers dead and seventy-five wounded, and after that the Americans effectively withdrew from the fray. Aidid was never captured, and the United Nations military profile was steadily lowered.
On the political side, the United Nations tried to help rebuild government at the grass roots through district councils composed of local "leaders," but in most places it found itself lost among the endless subclans and eddies of local power. The United Nations' efforts to broker a peace agreement between the major clans were, of course, also unavailing. It seemed that neither Aidid nor Ali Mahdi would accept anything less than the Presidency. Having built up Aidid politically through its pursuit of him, the United Nations built him up further, after taking the price off his head, by dealing with him as though he controlled areas of the country which he did not in fact control. The U.N., which had earlier preferred Ali Mahdi, seemed to be hoping to create a strongman to hand Somalia over to. And yet the buildup of Aidid was not enough to shift the balance of power decisively in his favor, and by the end of its Somalia mission the United Nations was openly preferring Ali Mahdi again.
Where the U.N. continued to function, it tended to spawn large colonies of clients. Thus, by 1994 there were estimated to be in Mogadishu alone more than a thousand "local N.G.O.s" -- non-governmental organizations, set up by Somalis to channel foreign funds into worthy projects like orphanages and literacy training. What fraction of these projects might be legitimate was impossible to determine, but it was widely thought to be small. The direct U.N. payroll, meanwhile, was immense. By the end of its mission, the U.N. was easily the biggest employer in Somalia. Counting dependents, it was supporting, according to some estimates, a hundred thousand people in Mogadishu. And rumor had it that a significant tax was being collected from those wages by the warlords, who were grimly rearming.
Even the U.N.'s ostensible main purpose in Somalia -- to help the country form a government -- seemed at times quite out of synch with the facts on the ground. Many of the nicer houses still standing in south Mogadishu, for instance, are being inhabited by people who do not legally own them -- mooryaan from the countryside, mostly, enjoying their first sojourn in the city. What interest do these young fighters have in peace and reconciliation? A government might permit homeowners to return and evict them. A government might restore law and order, reducing the demand for their services as gunmen. They might even be forced to go back to the countryside, back to their camels and sheep. Then, there are all the businessmen who are doing very nicely in the current, low-tax climate. Some of them are indistinguishable from the warlords (whom they must accommodate, in any event). The U.N., sponsoring its endless, expensive peace conferences in Addis Ababa and Nairobi, often seemed entirely unaware of this kind of structural resistance to the solving of the Somalian conundrum.
Somalia turned into one of the biggest, most expensive projects in U.N. history. The final bill came to more than two billion dollars. The mission could have lasted longer than it did, but once it became clear that "institution building" was going nowhere and that democratic elections would never be held, Security Council support evaporated. The mission's failure was not only political and military but administrative: the Somalia operation became notoriously corrupt (U.N. contracts and equipment, including vehicles, were simply for sale, particularly after the Americans left, in early 1994) and astoundingly wasteful (the U.N. compound in Mogadishu was rebuilt at a cost of more than fifty million dollars and then, in early February, was abandoned to looters). The subsequent reluctance of U.N. members to contribute to new peacekeeping missions, such as the desperately undersubscribed project in Rwanda, can be substantially attributed to the Somalia fiasco. More broadly, the type of aggressive international intervention to stop civilian suffering and establish civil authority -- overriding traditional concerns about national sovereignty -- which was pioneered by the Somalia mission and was regularly touted by U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has been badly discredited. The United States, for its part, felt far less enthusiasm for working with the United Nations -- and for international rescue missions in general -- by the time it left Somalia than it had felt when the troops arrived, in the heady days of 1992.