Somalia as a Military Target: Updated

The U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia and subsequent U.S. air strikes and naval blockade against that east African country mark another dangerous chapter in the Bush administration’s war against Islamic nations. And, despite no authorization from Congress for the United States to become engaged in that country’s civil war and despite the failure of President Bush to consult with Congress as required by the War Powers Act, the new Democratic leadership in Congress apparently has no objections to this dangerous and illegal escalation.

The renewed U.S. military involvement in Somalia must be understood within the context of the U.S. role in Somalia during the cold war, which helped sow the seeds of that country’s subsequent chaos. Like the ill-fated 1992-94 U.S. military intervention, the current U.S. and Ethiopian attacks have done little to bring peace or stability to this impoverished country.

Cold War Pawn

During the early 1970s, Somalia was a client of the Soviet Union, even allowing the Soviets to establish a naval base at Berbera on the strategic north coast near the entrance to the Red Sea. Somali dictator Siad Barre established this relationship in response to the large-scale American military support of Somalia’s historic rival Ethiopia, then under the rule of the feudal emperor Haile Selassie. When a military coup by leftist Ethiopian officers toppled the monarchy in 1974 and declared the country a Marxist-Leninist state the following year, the superpowers switched their allegiances–with the Soviet Union backing Ethiopia and the United States siding with the Barre regime in Somalia.

In 1977, Somalia attacked the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia in an effort to incorporate the area’s ethnic Somali population. The Ethiopians were eventually able to repel the attack with large-scale Soviet military support and 20,000 Cuban troops. Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-National Security Adviser under President Jimmy Carter, has since claimed that the conflict in this remote desert region was what sparked the end of detente with the Soviet Union and the renewal of the cold war.

From the late 1970s until just before his overthrow in early 1991, the United States sent hundreds of millions of dollars of arms to the Barre regime in return for the use of military facilities that had been originally constructed for the Soviets. These bases were to be used to support U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. The U.S. government ignored warnings throughout the 1980s by Africa specialists, human rights groups, and humanitarian organizations that continued U.S. support of the dictatorial Barre government would eventually plunge Somalia into chaos.

These predictions proved tragically accurate. During the nearly fifteen years of support by the U.S. and Italy, thousands of civilians were massacred at the hands of Barre’s increasingly authoritarian regime. Full-scale civil war erupted in 1988 and the repression increased still further, with clan leaders in the northern third of the country declaring independence to escape the persecution. (Though not recognized by any government, this northern region – known as Somaliland — has been a de facto separate state living in relative peace ever since.) In greatly centralizing his government’s control over the rest of the country, Barre severely weakened traditional structures in Somali society that had kept civil order for many years. To help maintain his grip on power, Barre played different Somali clans against each other, sowing the seeds of the fratricidal chaos and mass starvation to come.

Meanwhile, by eliminating all potential rivals with a national following, Barre created a power vacuum that could not be filled when the regime was finally overthrown in January 1991. Barre’s downfall was barely noticed outside the country since world attention was focused on the start of the Gulf War. With the end of the cold war and with the United States granted new bases in the Persian Gulf countries to respond to Iraqi aggression, Somalia fell off the radar screen of U.S. foreign policy.

Had the U.S. government not supported the Barre regime with large amounts of military aid, he would have been forced to step down long before his misrule splintered the country. Prior to the dictator’s downfall, former U.S. Representative Howard Wolpe, then-chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, called on the State Department to encourage Barre to step down. His pleas were rejected. “What you are seeing,” observed the congressman and former professor of African politics, “is a general indifference to a disaster that we played a role in creating.”

A U.S. diplomat who had been stationed in the Somali capital of Mogadishu acknowledged, “It’s easy to blame us for all this.” But, he argued, “This is a sovereign country we’re taking about. They have chosen to spend [U.S. military aid] that way, to hurt people and destroy their own economy.”

While pouring in more than $50 million of arms annually to prop up the Barre regime, the United States offered virtually no assistance that could help build a self-sustaining economy that could feed Somalia’s people. In addition, the United States pushed a structural adjustment program through the International Monetary Fund that severely weakened the local agricultural economy. Combined with the breakdown of the central government, drought conditions, and rival militias disrupting food supplies, famine on a massive scale resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 Somalis, mostly children.

Humanitarian Mission Goes Awry

In November 1992, the outgoing senior Bush administration sent 30,000 U.S. troops–primarily Marines and Army Rangers–to Somalia. This “humanitarian mission” was designed to assist in the distribution of relief supplies being intercepted by armed militias before reaching the civilian populations in need. Though initially a unilateral mission, the initiative was endorsed by the UN Security Council the following month.

Many Somalis and some relief organizations were grateful for the American role. Many others expressed skepticism, noting that the famine had actually peaked that summer and the security situation was also gradually improving. As U.S. troops began arriving, the chaos limiting food shipments was constrained to a small area, with most other parts of the country functioning as relatively peaceful fiefdoms. Most food was getting through, and the loss from theft was only slightly higher than elsewhere in Africa. In some cases, U.S. forces essentially dumped food on local markets, hurting indigenous farmers and creating greater food shortages over the longer term. In any case, few Somalis were involved in the decisions during this crucial period.

Most importantly for the United States, large numbers of Somalis saw the American forces as representatives of the government that had been the major outside supporter of the hated former dictatorship. Such a foreign presence in a country that had been free from colonial rule for little more than three decades at that time led to growing resentment. Contributing to these concerns was the fact that the U.S. troops arriving in Somalia were elite combat forces, and were not trained for such humanitarian missions. (Author and journalist David Halberstam quotes then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney telling an associate, “We’re sending the Rangers to Somalia. We are not going to be able to control them. They are like overtrained pit bulls. No one controls them.”) Shootings at U.S. military checkpoints became increasingly commonplace, and Somalis witnessed scenes of mostly white American forces harassing and shooting black citizens.

In addition, the U.S. role escalated to include attempts at disarming some of the warlords, resulting in armed engagements, often in crowded urban neighborhoods. This “mission creep” resulted in American casualties, creating growing dissent at home in what had originally been a widely supported foreign policy initiative. The thousands of M-16 rifles sent, courtesy of the American taxpayer, to Barre’s armed forces were now in the hands of rival militiamen who had not only used them to kill their fellow countrymen and to disrupt the distribution of relief supplies, but were now using them against American troops. Within the U.S. ranks, soldiers were heard repeating the slogan, “The only good Somali is a dead Somali.” It had become apparent that the United States had badly underestimated the resistance.

In May 1993, the United States transferred the failing mission to the UN. This was the first time the world body had combined peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and humanitarian assistance, as well as the first time the UN had intervened without a formal invitation by a host government (because there wasn’t any.) Within Somalia there was little trust of the United Nations, particularly since the UN Secretary General at that time was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a major supporter of Barre when he led Egypt’s foreign ministry.

Even though the UN was technically in control, U.S. forces went on increasingly aggressive forays, including a major battle in Mogadishu that resulted in the deaths of 18 Marines and hundreds of Somali civilians, dramatized in the highly fictionalized movie Black Hawk Down. The U.S.-led UN forces had become yet another faction in the multisided conflict. Largely retreating to fixed positions, U.S. forces largely focused on protecting their own. With mounting criticism on Capitol Hill from both the left and the right, President Bill Clinton withdrew American troops in March 1994. The UN took out its last peacekeeping forces one year later.

By this point, there was a widespread bipartisan consensus that the U.S. intervention in Somalia was a fiasco. Indeed, the negative feelings of becoming involved in a civil conflict in Africa were so strong that it became the major factor in the U.S. refusal to intervene–either unilaterally or through the UN–to prevent the genocide in Rwanda during the spring of 1994. This tragic decision came despite the fact that the calculated government-led massacre of the country’s Tutsi minority could have easily been interrupted, while there was little good the United States could have done to end the fracticidal conflict in Somalia.

Ironically, President Bush now says Clinton’s widely supported decision to withdraw from Somalia was a mistake that emboldened terrorists. He uses the Somali case as an illustration of why the United States must not withdraw from Iraq.

Renewed U.S. Military Intervention

With the withdrawal of U.S. and UN troops, Somalia returned to a series of fiefdoms run by warlords with widespread lawlessness and occasional outbreaks of inter-clan fighting. Several efforts to form a coalition government of clan elders and warlords failed, making little progress in reconciling warring militias and uniting the country. The northeastern region of Puntland became self-governing since 1998, though — unlike Somaliland – it appeared willing to be part of a federated state rather than an internationally recognized independent country. It has experienced its own battles between contending leaders and factions, however. Parts of southwestern Somalia and a subsection of Jubaland – the site of the recent U.S. air strikes – also declared their independence, though they also seemed willing to settle for autonomy within a federated state. With the country splintering, chaos reigning, and no central government to suppress them, some cells believed to be affiliated with al-Qaida sought refuge within Somalia’s borders. Also emerging during this period in various parts of the country was a system of Islamic courts that tried to bring some semblance of legal order, whether combating robberies and drug dealings or providing education and health.

In 2004, after protracted talks in Kenya, the main warlords and politicians signed a deal to set up a new parliament, which later appointed a president. The fledgling administration, the fourteenth attempt to establish a government since 1991, became known as the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), headquartered in the town of Baidoa. Though strongly backed by the United States and recognized by the UN, the TFG had little credibility among the Somali people. Not only did it have no civil service or government buildings, it consisted of the very warlords that had wreaked such havoc on the country over the previous fourteen years.

As with Afghanistan, which suffered from similar chaos following the ouster of its Communist government in 1992, stability came through puritanical Islamist elements. The system of Islamic courts had become increasingly popular since they – unlike the TFG or anyone else – had brought peace and stability in areas where they ruled. This past summer, they came together to form the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and set up a government. Unlike the Taliban, however, which was heavily influenced by al-Qaida and hard-line elements of Pakistani intelligence, the ICU was a purely homegrown movement. While it included some extremist elements that may have indeed had some affinity with radical jihadists, U.S. charges of al-Qaida affiliation appear to have been grossly exaggerated. They were also not nearly as repressive in their interpretation of Islam as the Taliban, such as barring women from employment, education, or health care. Within months, they controlled most of the country outside the Baidoa region.

The ICU limited civil liberties — such as strongly discouraging Western dancing, music, and films – but it also disarmed militias and banned the widespread and debilitating use of the narcotic qat. It publicly executed two convicted murderers, though this was just one-twelfth of the number of people executed in Texas in 2006. Indeed, the ICU was not nearly as repressive or as extremist in its interpretation of Islam as the U.S.-backed government of Saudi Arabia. And despite the dangerous intentions and connections of some of its leadership, the ICU had finally brought stability and peace to a country that had suffered the lost of over one million people over the past sixteen years of violent chaos.

The Bush administration could not tolerate the existence of an Islamist regime it could not control, however. The United States began arming, training, and financing the armed forces of the Ethiopian dictatorship in preparation for an invasion of Somalia, despite the fact that such an act of aggression is a clear violation of the UN Charter, which – as a signed and ratified international treaty – both Ethiopia and the United States are obliged to uphold.

After weeks of clashes on Somali territory, Ethiopian forces launched a full-scale invasion on December 24. Four days later, Ethiopian forces advanced to Mogadishu, installing the TFG in government offices. Since that time, violence and lawlessness have returned to the Somali capital. Fighting between various armed factions has reignited, roadblocks manned by various militias have sprung up to extort money from passing motorists, and the peace enjoyed under ICU rule has come to an end.

As ICU forces retreated southward, the U.S. Navy tightened its blockade of the Somali coast. On January 8, the United States launched a series of strikes in southern Somalia. Despite initial claims by U.S. officials that the air strikes killed senior al-Qaida officials implicated in several notorious terrorist attacks in East Africa, it now appears that the scores of people killed were primarily civilians, along with some ICU militiamen. The attacks have set off waves of anti-American anger in Mogadishu and elsewhere.

By January 12, the last ICU stronghold had fallen. To have the first government that brought any semblance of stability to Somalia in seventeen years ousted by military operations of its historic rival Ethiopia and the United States, both predominantly Christian nations, will likely play into the hands of radical Islamists who hope to stir up religious hatreds. No longer in power, the Islamists could indeed start engaging in terrorism and – like other Muslim countries under occupation by non-Muslim powers – could become the center of a global jihad.

Furthermore, what al-Qaida operatives may have indeed found their way to Somalia were there not as a result of an Islamist-identified central authority but because of the chaos and instability from the lack of a central authority. While the Bush administration has long obsessed over alleged state-sponsored terrorism, it is failed states like Somalia and Iraq where extremist movements and terrorism is allowed to flourish. The recent interventions by the United States and Ethiopia have only made matters worse.