This article was last modified on February 3, 2009.

Empire Strikes First: Somalia

The following was supposed to appear in the February 2009 edition of The Scene, albeit in a truncated version. I was unable to meet deadline. It is presented here in an unabridged format.

While the news media were focused on the American presidential campaigns and the ongoing financial crisis, those who follow global events may have seen something different; 2008 was the Year of the Pirate. Out of the chaos in Somalia has risen a thriving network of pirates scouring the Gulf of Aden, near Yemen, and the Indian Ocean for ships to hijack, looting everything from gold to crude oil to fertilizer. No passing vessel, regardless of its freight, has been safe from the pirates. How did such a network arrive and what, if anything, can be done to quell this global threat?

The last fifty years of Somali history have been complicated and cannot thoroughly be recapped in these pages. Since independence in 1960 — Somalia, like most of Africa, was a European colony — control has passed from one weak government to another. Control of Somalia was of great interest to both the Soviet Union and the United States due to the country’s strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea. After the Soviets stopped backing socialist dictator Siad Barre’s government, Barre expelled all Soviet advisers, tore up his treaty with the Soviet Union, and switched sides in the Cold War. America’s presence goes back at least as far as 1978, when Somalia was used a base to counter the Soviet-run bases in neighboring Ethiopia. The United States provided approximately $100 million per year in economic and military aid until 1989. The last functional political structure in Somalia fell in 1991.

Many regions of Somalia have refused to recognize their own leadership as legitimate and instead rely on regional “warlords” or simply see themselves as an autonomous nation not accepted by the rest of the world. Such a lack of power structure invites ruthlessness, power-grabs and black market trading while the average inhabitant suffers in abject poverty. The United Nations estimates that there are 300,000 malnourished children in Somalia, with attacks and kidnappings of aid workers shutting down many of the humanitarian projects. In other words, this is a pirate’s Shangri-La.

Although America has an estimated 761military bases worldwide, Somalia is relatively free of American influence. After a failed peacekeeping mission that some critics called a mere “photo op” in 1992-93, the United States withdrew most of their forces. A massive United Nations humanitarian program followed, but met the same fate. In 2007, a mere 27 American soldiers remained. The United States is believed to have funded an alliance of Somali warlords that formed to defend Mogadishu against Islamist forces; one Somali watchdog group put the U.S. funding at between $100,000 and $150,000 per month. But funding wasn’t enough to keep the ICU down, and they succeeded in fending off the warlords and dividing their alliances.

Michael Schatzberg, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says the biggest problem in Somalia is “the absence of a serious government able to maintain control and a basic infrastructure”; his colleague Thomas Spear, a historian at Madison, agrees with this assessment, in almost identical terms: for him, the biggest problem is “total absence of a central government”.

The Somalia-based pirates have made an estimated $30 million hijacking ships for ransom this past year, seizing 40 vessels off the 1,880-mile coastline, primarily in the Gulf of Aden. While the pirates are clearly a problem, they can be seen as merely doing what they must in a given environment to survive. As Schatzberg points out, “the piracy issue is a testament to the entrepeneurship of private Somalis” and “is a way some people have figured out how to make a living”, yet “you don’t want pirates capturing Saudi oil tankers” or threatening innocent people on cruise ships.

There are fears the withdrawal of the 3,000 Ethiopian troops could lead to a power vacuum and that violence will continue despite a peace deal between Somalia’s transitional government and one of the main opposition factions. Others say the pullout, together with the resignation of President Abdullahi Yusuf, could make it easier for a new government to be formed, including moderate Islamist forces. About 2,400-3,400 Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers from the African Union in Somalia have taken up positions vacated by the Ethiopians.

The United States has circulated a draft resolution calling for a U.N. peacekeeping force to be deployed in Somalia to replace the small African Union force. But not everyone supports this plan. “They should stop the military interference in Somalia — especially the U.S,” says Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia, and a United Nations-designated terrorist. “Look at the areas in Somalia where there is no foreign troops. There is no fighting. People are living harmoniously together.” Aweys had called for an Iraq-style Islamic insurgency only two years ago, so his relationship with America could be considered anything but friendly.


American foreign policy has failed in multiple respects with regard to Somalia and the region. While the Somalian conflict is little-known beyond what movie-goers saw in the film “Black Hawk Down”, our influence there goes back decades. Schatzberg reminds us that “most of today’s problems were sewn well before Bill Clinton. From the end of the 1960s to 1991, it was a military dictatorship under Siad Barre, and he got caught up in the Cold War. Until 77-78, he was in the Soviet camp.” When Somalia invaded Ethiopia — a US proxy at the time — it was a Cold War scuffle, and “the Cold War is to blame for a lot of what you see in Somalia today”. In 1991, the Barre regime “collapsed under the weight of opposition Somali groups” and the problem was a “profusion of arms” where “the guns went to soldiers who eventually became warlords”.

As for today’s problems, it’s not just the Cold War. Schatzberg informs us that “there’s plenty of blame to go around: the Soviets, Americans, the Ethiopians, the African Union for failure to mount a peacekeeping operation, Islamic fundamentalists, or the media for failure to pay attention. Pick a card, any card.”

Both President Clinton and George W. Bush added to the region’s problems. Schatzberg not only agrees with conventional wisdom that the UN intervention “failed”, but finds the Clinton intervention “silly” and says that the biggest mistake wasn’t what we did in Somalia, but that we “failed to intervene in Rwanda”, where genocide was taking place. Professor Spear believes that Bush had an “excess of ideological zeal” that was opposed to any form of Islamic government, leading to a strengthening of the feuding warlords and the weakening of a centralized structure.


Accepting that we have failed thus far, how can we begin to succeed? We can start by listening to J. Anthony Holmes, head of the Africa program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former top Africa official at the State Department. Holmes says, “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… We’ve been trying to kill terrorists rather than to facilitate the rebuilding of a state that would be inhospitable to terrorists.” Professor Schatzberg agrees with the Somalia-Afghanistan analogy, claiming that “if Afghanistan taught us anything, failed states can come back to kick us in the rear end”.

Holmes believes we should address Somalia’s underlying problems, spending money less on military intervention and more on rebuilding basic services and structures, as well as encouraging charities, development organizations and getting the Somalis themselves to take the initiative. Schatzberg believes “the United States can’t solve the basic problems”, agreeing that the Somalis themselves must be leading the way — “solutions can’t be imposed from abroad”. As for the piracy problems, Schatzberg says stopping them may be as easy as simply failing to negotiate. He asserts that “if we stopped paying them often enough, they might stop”.

Professor Spear thinks we also need a broader approach. We have been “paranoid” about Islam, and need to realize that Somalia has been the source of no major terror outfit. He sees the answer in cooperation, working through the African Union to get a compromise, and stop seeing Somalia as an enemy. He reminds us that Minneapolis is the home of the largest Somali immigration, so these are a people and a culture who are now not “others”, but our neighbors.

A report from Human Rights Watch, released in December, echoes Spear’s concerns. “The United States, treating Somalia primarily as a battlefield in the ‘global war on terror,’ has pursued a policy of uncritical support for transitional government and Ethiopian actions, and the resulting lack of accountability has fueled the worst abuses,” it read in part.

But worst of all, with so much media attention on Somalia, we may be seeing a repeat of the Rwanda situation of the 1990s. Spear says the real African problem is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, what he calls a “massive disaster”, and a much bigger deal than Somalia. Schatzberg agrees that the real problem is the Congo — Somalia is a “side show” and “small potatoes compared to the Congo”. Therein lies the problem: we must not fail in Somalia, allowing another failed state to flourish, but we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from another genocide. Schatzberg says there’s no “magic wand” for foreign policy, and I think anyone who looks over the problems in Africa will have to agree.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical, Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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