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War Clouds Over Somalia
26 March 2002
Making Somalia the next military stop in the U.S. war on terrorism is a dangerous mistake. In targeting the Somali factions with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, the United States may be stumbling into a trap that will undermine the fledgling coalition government and thus leave the country even more hospitable to terrorists.
Somalia is in shambles. Since 1991 there has been no effective state because the withdrawal of the superpowers allowed the country's intricate regional and clan rivalries to tear it apart from within. The resident dictator, Siad Barre, collapsed under the weight of years of economic missteps and repressive policies. Rising factionalism and the onset of severe famine in 1992 set the stage for the debacle of the U.S.-UN intervention depicted in the film "Black Hawk Down."
The region remains awash in arms. Moscow poured more than $10 billion in weapons to Ethiopia during the 1980s and the United States dumped billions more into its client regimes in Sudan and Somalia. Today, with warlords brutally vying for turf in Somalia, factionalism still dominates. Another U.S. blunder could make it worse.
Somalia remains desperately poor, a situation deeply worsened after September 11th by the Bush administration's closure of the al-Barakat money transfer offices that allowed Somali emigrants to send cash home to relatives. This was a rash action, tantamount to closing down some country's national banking system just because one criminal is suspected of using one of its 24-hour cash machines. Ironically, it further destabilized Somalia's fragile society just as efforts were getting underway to restore civil authority there.
The only current nation-building effort with any prospect of success is the Transitional National Government (TNG). Appointed in 2000 by a 12-clan consortium to facilitate the creation of a viable government, the TNG consists of Somali elders, businessmen, military officers, representatives of civil society and some warlords. The TNG remains weak; its military consists of no more than 2,100 lightly armed soldiers who presently control a portion of Mogadishu, the capital city. By no means a perfect democratic institution, the TNG nonetheless represents Somalia s best hope of restoring peace and stability.
Somalia's south and east are most open to penetration by Islamic extremist groups. For years, major portions of these regions have been under the influence, if not actual control, of a group known as al-Ittihad al-Islamiyya (Islamic Unity), which was tied to Osama bin Laden's network in the 1990s. But in the latter half of the decade, Ittihad was repeatedly attacked by Ethiopia, whose forces drove deep into Somalia several times. Despite its military success, Ethiopia seems to be convincing Washington that Ittihad is still threat, claiming recently that the group has infiltrated the TNG.
But Ethiopia has its own agenda. It is supporting a breakaway "statelet" in the north in exchange for access to the Indian Ocean and is arming proxy military units in the south to try to manipulate the political power arrangement there. Among those receiving Ethiopian aid is Hussein Mohammed Aideed, whose father, Mohammed Farah Aideed, was the target of the mission on which "Black Hawk Down" is based. U.S. re-engagement with Ethiopia in this region promises more of the same.
The Bush administration must move to strengthen the TNG's capacity to police its own territory and to reunify the country while restraining Ethiopia from intervening in Somalia s internal affairs. These actions would contribute significantly to stability and development in the Horn of Africa.
If the Bush administration decides to move into Somalia with military force, it should avoid the temptation to further arm the various local warlords as a Somali version of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance. To do so would guarantee that once we withdraw from Somalia, these forces will revisit old rivalries, thus destroying what few prospects for unity and peace presently exist.
It was the lethal combination of abject poverty, free-flowing arms and no central government that made Somalia a playground for warlords. It is this same group of conditions that could make it a haven for terrorists. The White House needs to think again about freezing Somalia's financial system and must wake to the fact that re-arming local militants will not only weaken or destroy the nation's fledgling central authority but create an ideal safe haven for terrorist groups with global ambitions.