Friday, 18 September 2009

Will the US ever get it right in Somalia? The raid by US forces in Somalia is the latest in a catalogue of catastrophic interventions by western pow

o Warsan Cismaan Saalax
o, Friday 18 September 2009 21.30 BST
o Article history

The American raid in Somalia last Monday is likely to join a long list of US foreign policy failures. Many of these efforts were guided by self-interest coupled with lack of appreciation for the historical and cultural contexts. Somalis are proud nomads who value their freedom and independence. They are also suspicious of strangers due to their experiences during the scramble for Africa, which left a bitter taste. Somalis in what was once called Somaliland moved freely back and forth for centuries without any restrictions. The imperial powers then decided that it was too big a land for grazing nomads. As a result, Italy, France and Britain divided the land among themselves.

The final blow came when Britain decided to give a piece of the land – namely the Ogaden region and the Northern Frontier District – to Kenya and Ethiopia, separating families and igniting a desire to reunite with them in the ensuing pan-Somalia movement. Today, Somalis are distrustful of any projects that involve foreigners. Their fears have been classically reinforced by US foreign policies that constantly switched sides in Somalia's conflicts.

Since the inception of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in 2004, the journey has been a rollercoaster. Initially, the US overlooked the TFG because a long-term engagement policy was not an option. Instead the US employed a group of warlords who promised miracles as partners in the war on terror. Millions of dollars were redirected to this endeavour. The plan backfired and provoked an Islamist takeover of the south central regions. The US was left to firefight and supported the consequent Ethiopian invasion.

Unsurprisingly, a fierce uprising against Ethiopia followed, leading to an embarrassing withdrawal from Somali soil. The US continues to support the TFG, which is inherently weak and unable to withstand attacks by the well-organised insurgency. Yet the US came up with a massive plan, injecting millions of dollars into TFG, and boosting arms supplies to its militias. Some of these weapons mysteriously found their way to the insurgency.

This is not the first time the US has misread the fortunes of Somalia. In 1990, a few months before Siad Barre's dictatorial regime ccollapsed, General Norman Schwarzkopf told Congress that military aid was critical to help preserve Somalia's political and territorial integrity.

Barre was a notorious dictator: summary executions and detentions without trial were commonplace. The man nicknamed "Mighty Mouth" made even yawning in public a punishable crime. During the cold war, his style of government was treated as a minor inconvenience. Keeping the gateway to Africa and the Middle Eastern oil supplies communism-free were seen more important – a position that Barre used very well. For 20 years he wavered mischievously between left and right, blackmailing his way to building the biggest arsenal in Africa. The US gave him $800m in aid, while Italy poured in $1bn, half of which went on arms.

In 1991, Barre's rule ended and the country fell to armed opposition groups. What began as a noble resurrection against tyranny soon to took an ugly twist. The southern clans' alliance, led by the infamous General Aidid, chased Barre out of Mogadishu and began cleansing the capital of his clan. The alliance then turned on the peaceful communities of the capital, killing and uprooting millions of people. The southern alliance soon turned on itself, reducing the country to chaos for the next two decades.

In 1993, almost two years into to this mayhem, a UN relief operation led by the US was initiated to save the starving children caught in the middle. The mission also sought to disarm the fighters and hand the country back to the people. Instead, the US has literally put it at the mercy of warlords. Unaware of the mental state of General Aided, the US took sides. In no time Aidid switched from collaborator to a fugitive, leading to the consequent Blackhawk confrontations which killed 18 US rangers and thousands of nameless Somalis.

Young, angry, and with few or no employable skills, Somali men from around the globe march back, apparently to rid the country of infidel collaborators and the evil of capitalism. Add this to rising piracy off the Gulf of Aden and Somalia can no longer be ignored. While one appreciates that US interest must come first, there is no foreseeable win situation through cat-and-mouse politics.

Yes, last Monday's attack brought a terrorist down, but the conditions that bred him persist. Since then, we have seen the first fruits of that ill-advised mission in the form of the deadliest suicide attack so far, which killed 11 people, including the deputy commander of the African Union force trying to protect Somalia's weak government. These are signs that things are about to get worse. Yet nothing has changed in US policy, which seems oblivious to the fact that too much blood has already been shed.

Contrary to the popular belief, extremism in Somalia has not come out of an empty terrain; it grew over time and in a context. Plans to reverse it will need serious thought.

This must be accompanied by change of attitudes towards Africa. Already the UK is leading the way by amending the law in order to deal with Somali individuals wanted for crimes against humanity since 1990. It is not enough, but it is a start, and I hope other countries will follow the UK's example.

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