Saturday, December 30, 2006

Questions from a close friend

Following message from a distinguished diplomat and close friend reached me yesterday (my reply follows):

I confess that I have great difficulty understanding what is happening in Somalia. It is not self evident to me that restoration of the so-called official or recognized government is necessarily undesirable, although the downsides are clear enough: continuing long-term insurgency, a refugee mess in Kenya, uncertainty to say the least about the motivation and intentions of Meles Zenawi, further international opprobrium for the Bush Administration. But "victory" for the Islamists would result in miserable continuing problems for poor Somalia as well, would it not, and perhaps for the US also? Are the Islamists in fact patriots with any realistic hope of unifying the country?

What, practically, could diplomacy accomplish in these circumstances beyond a temporary pause in the bloodshed? USG encouragement of warlords and Ethiopian invaders is distasteful, but I am not sufficiently informed to evaluate the options.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Dear ______,

. . . . None of us has a whole lot of trustworthy information about what's happened in the last few weeks. Still, the broad outlines are pretty clear and need to be aired and discussed among people who really care about the country and its future. The outcome just might be an improvement in understanding all around, not least of all among members of the press and policy makers in government. . . .

A few points in response to your questions:

-- There will be no "restoration of the so-called official or recognized government," whether desirable or undesirable, because it was never ousted or overthrown. Actually, it has been an extremely frail flower from the start, unable -- until now, at least -- even to agree on where to base itself, much less on how to govern the country. That's because it's a hodge-podge of contending, quarreling faction leaders, old-line politicians and warlords, deeply split among themselves over how and whether to relate to the Ethiopians, Kenyans, Saudis, etc. From their standpoint, the Islamist movement has served as a "common enemy" helping them overcome their differences, at least temporarily, but it remains to be seen how long they'll hang together if that enemy disappears.

-- It's worth noting that although the media are calling the TFG "internationally recognized" -- presumably because it's been allowed to occupy Somalia's seat at the U.N. -- no major state that I know of has in fact extended it formal recognition. Certainly the USG has not -- and probably won't as long as the issue of Somaliland's jealously held independence remains unresolved. (Ironic, isn't it, that we've been promoting and sponsoring a government we don't recognize while ignoring another Somali government that's pretty much put its house in order?)

-- A "long-term insurgency" by the Islamists seems unlikely to me right now, in part because so few Somalis are really religious zealots (I simply don't buy the notion that the Islamic Courts movement was captured or even very strongly influenced by the handful of radicals with alleged ties to al-Qaida who came to the fore after the mainline clerics gained power in Mogadishu). But a great deal depends on what happens next. A return to the feudal anarchy of nine months ago and a failure of the TFG to get its act together and impose order could very well result in rekindling the Islamist movement -- probably more radical than ever -- as an alternative to secularist bumbling. Somalis really want an end to anarchy.

-- Are the Islamists really "patriots with any realistic hope of unifying the country?" If the operative word is "realistic," probably not. But in the minds of many Somalis , they seemed to represent a significant step above and beyond eternal clan feuding, especially when they showed they could bring order and a semblance of tranquility to Mogadishu after fifteen years of bloody anarchy. Clan rivalries and enmities run deep, however, as we'll soon see when the TFG itself attempts to "unify" the country. I predict the road to unity will be a long one.

-- What can diplomacy do? Well, diplomacy literally created the TFG during more than a year of mediation and arm-twisting in Nairobi (with grudging support and encouragement from Washington, by the way). With a little more backing from the international community, the TFG might actually have got on its feet, had not the Islamic Courts lost patience with the politicians and taken matters into their own hands. Diplomacy will now have another chance, thanks (?) to the Ethiopian army, and Somalia's real friends should press hard now for amnesty, reconciliation, a withdrawal of foreign troops, full enforcement of the arms embargo, an increased physical U.N. presence, both political and humanitarian -- and, above all, an end to the fruitless search for al Qaida in the sands of Somalia.

-- The very worst thing the U.S. could do is take sides in the disputes that inevitably lie ahead, as Somalis try to sort things out. Funding and encouraging the despised villain warlords out of fear that Somalia could become a breeding ground for Muslim extremists was incredibly stupid and engendered enormous resentment toward the U.S. Any pressure on the TFG to round up the rebels or crack down on "insurgents" would be foolish and counterproductive. At a minimum, the U.S. should avoid meddling in Somalia's byzantine politics and clan feuds, resist giving advice on how to build democracy, keep its Special Forces troops off Somali soil, and give the Somalis themselves a chance -- two or three decades, at least -- to figure out how to put their country back together again.

All the best,

Read more!

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On PBS: "Conflict in Somalia Escalating"

Click on the title above to view the full video of last night's PBS interview with Prof. Abdi Samatar and Akwe Amosu of the Open Society Institute (be sure to be sure to click on the audio or streaming video link). The remarks of both persons were insightful and well-informed. I personally found Abdi Samatar's commentary particularly thoughtful, especially in underscoring the mischievous role the United States has played -- but judge for yourself. Read more!

Sadia Aden on Somalia's grim future

My Somali-American friend Sadia Aden contributed the following piece to the BBC's "Have Your Say" section yesterday and shared it with me today. I fully share her anxiety about the country's future.

We do not know what tomorrow holds and we are only capable of false predictions. Nevertheless, I will say the future of Somalia as well as that of the horn of Africa looks very grim. I am a Somali-American and I see Iraq of Africa written all over this Ethiopian invasion.

For those Somalis who think Ethiopia is after the Courts, we are WRONG! Ethiopian machine guns do not know the difference between us and them, but for sure they know what a Somali looks like. The intelligence our western governments are using to condemn the Courts, is intelligence provided by Prime Minister Meles's government. This is tantamount to condemning India on intelligence collected by its arch-enemy Pakistan and vice versa. How ironic is that?

Those of us who closely monitor the status of Ethiopia understand very well that Prime Minister Meles is simply trying divert attention from the 2005 election he rigged that was won by the opposition groups whose over 200 peaceful demonstrators were killed and thousands more locked up in prisons including Ethiopian opposition leaders. With all the poverty, AIDS epidemic increasing. and human rights violations committed in Ethiopia under his watch, Meles like any other African dictator tightens his grip by instilling fear in people's hearts and deflecting attention from his dictatorial behaviors.

Wanting peace and saying NO to Ethiopian invasion of Somalia DOES NOT mean [we are] against the TFG or supporting the Courts. What it means is, that there is a dead body that lies upon all of us peace lovers, waiting for a burial, and to have a debate over it and watch it rot is a sin. It reminds me of Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsi's were massacred in 3 months while the world debated whether it was a GENOCIDE or not.

The African Union's (AU) ill advised backing of the bombing of Somalia further complicates the crisis. If the AU was any help, or for that matter capable of easing the pain of the burden carried by African women and children, it would ease that of Darfur. From the drought of April 2005 to the severe floods that devastated Somalis, Somalia is on her knees, desperately waiting for a helping hand. Somalia stands naked, striped of her dignity on the highway of horn of Africa.

What all Somalis want will come, but we must realize that we can not furnish a burning house. We should put out the fire, allow home grown peace to take root, meet every Somali's basic needs and then call for the real thing, ELECTIONS. Remember what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. correctly said decades ago: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." The history we always hear and read about is tantamount to the one before us today. Hence, history is in the making and I know with all my being that it will not be kind to many of us.

May peace, justice and equality remain our foremost conviction.
Sadia Ali Aden Read more!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Somali Diaspora Network Issues Appeal

On behalf of the Somali Diaspora Network, Hassan Warsame today published the following appeal to the contending parties in Somalia. I personally subscribe to it without reservation.

Renewed Conflict in Somalia

Fairfax, Virginia, December 23 - We are deeply saddened and troubled by the renewed fighting and hostility in Somalia. It has been reported that hundreds of civilians and combatants including Ethiopian troops lost their lives or were seriously wounded because of the fighting for the past several days. In addition, thousands of civilians are caught in the cross fire and are in a dire humanitarian situation. As a result, large crowds of civilians have started fleeing the effected area and are dispersed into the bushes with no food, water or shelter.

Somali Diaspora Network issues the following direct appeal to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and to the Somali Council of Islamic Courts (SCIC) leadership:

  • Immediately stop the fighting without any condition;
  • Disengage your forces and return them to their previous positions;
  • Establish security protocol teams to monitor and oversee the ceasefire and the disengagement;
  • Return to the Khartoum peace conference promptly.

The above appeal will be futile if the presence of foreign troops inside Somalia is not addressed. Independent media has confirmed that Ethiopia committed large mechanized battalions of its army into Somalia. In addition, it has sent tanks and attack helicopters to the battlefields deep into Somali territories.

Therefore, in order to avoid the escalation of the conflict into regional dimension, we urge both sides to banish foreign troops from Somalia. In particular, we, plea to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to work toward securing the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops immediately from all Somali territories. Reciprocally, we urge the Somali Council of Islamic Courts (SCIC) leadership to pull back their forces from Baidao and surrounding vicinities and refrain from future use of force.

We wish to remind the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Somali Council of Islamic Courts (SCIC) leadership the seriousness of a new conflict and the resulting tragedy and human loss to the Somali people who have already suffered enough from years of anarchy, civil war, famine, and now deadly floods and new conflict. We urge both sides to return to the peace talks and commit to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

CONTACT: Somali Diaspora Network
Hassan Warsame

Read more!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Islamists and Ethiopia "Gird for War"

In an especially perceptive NYT piece today, Jeffrey Gettleman probes current U.S. policy toward Somalia in a way that calls into question tacit American support for Ethiopian military involvement there. His appraisal suggests that by opposing the Islamic Courts movement and endorsing a one-sided U.N. Security Council resolution that partially lifts the arms embargo in a way favoring the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), we are feeding the popular animosity toward the West that spoiled Operation Restore Hope and led to "Black Hawk Down."

Gettleman points out that, while Ethiopia increases its troop levels inside Somalia in support of the TFG, the Islamists continue to broaden their support among the Somali populace:

In Mogadishu the Islamists are continuing their hearts-and-minds campaign, organizing neighborhood cleanups, delivering food to the needy and resuscitating old national institutions like the Supreme Court, which was given a fresh coat of paint and reopened in October.
He continues:
Streets that were clogged with years of debris are now clear and bureaucracy is budding, with more rules and more paperwork, including forms at the airport that ask name, age, nationality and religion — Muslim or non-Muslim being the only choices.
He also quotes Ibrahim Hassan Addou, whom he describes as foreign minister for the Islamists and an American citizen of Somali descent:
Moderates were backed into a corner by an American-led campaign to discredit and isolate the Islamic administration. . . . Everybody was against us from the beginning, and now we have no choice but to fight . . . . What I don’t understand is why the whole world is trying to throw its weight behind a government that has been totally rejected by its own people.

Read more!

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Somalis of Lewiston

Retired FSO Curtis Jones sent me an article from the December 11 New Yorker entitled "New in Town: The Somalis of Lewiston [Maine]." I emailed him the following comments today:

Dear Curt,

Thanks for sending me the Finnegan piece. Overall, it's a splendid and heartening account of how these refugees are adapting themselves and their culture to life in the U.S., where they are certainly lucky to have landed (believe me) after escaping their awful difficulties in Somalia. The piece is particularly useful in its description of how so many Somalis have unfortunately managed to import their clan and sub-clan conflicts from home, playing them out here as if those same differences weren't the very ones that caused them to flee Somalia. But it's also encouraging to see how the younger and/or wiser members of the Lewiston community are seriously wrestling with those issues and successfully overcoming them.

I was frankly dismayed to read about the degree to which illiteracy in in general and lack of fluency in English in particular have been impediments to resettlement. Not so very long ago (in the 1970s), when President Siad decreed that the Somali language should be written using the Roman alphabet instead of Arabic, his government launched a huge and amazingly successful literacy campaign that gave the country one of the highest literacy rates in Africa. After twenty years of anarchy that essentially closed down the public education system, that "great leap forward" has evidently been nullified, to judge from the Lewiston Somalis anyway, and along with it the learning of English that had flourished in Somali schools.

Where I have difficulties with Finnegan's piece is the disproportionate attention he gives to the "Bantu" Somalis as a distinct and historically disadvantaged element in the community. There is no question but that these "kinky-haired" farmers, as some called them, were second-class citizens where they came from and were often discriminated against and even despised by "traditional" Somalis, as indeed farmers so often are by pastoralists elsewhere (snobbish Somalis used to boast to me of the country's homogeneity, claiming that 99 percent of Somalis were "nomads" rather than dirt farmers). And because they were the sedentary types who cultivated the land and harvested and stored their produce for market or for seed, they were the ones who suffered most painfully during the civil war when their lands were overrun and their stores looted by warring militias.

But I think it's unhelpful of the author to convey the impression that the "Bantu" (a term that was rarely used in Somalia) were treated as low-class "slaves" at home -- my driver was one and was so self-possessed that he used to insist on sitting in and injecting his opinions, sometimes contrary to mine, when I met with local officials around the country! In a way, Finnegan's focus on their complaints helps to perpetuate and even exacerbate the excess-baggage prejudices that Somalis brought with them as refugees.

On the whole, I'm amazed at how successfully the younger generation of Somalis have been in building new lives for themselves in the U.S., often in the face of serious obstacles (most notably the terrorism factor but also our own abiding racism). They're an energetic and resourceful bunch, and I find the Lewiston "experiment" to be very encouraging. Read more!

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Troubling Tidbits from NYT

Two tiny but very unsettling items in the Times caught my eye this morning

  1. Peacekeepers for Somalia (p. A7) - In only two sentences, a report that the U.N. Security Council had unanimously approved Amb. John Bolton's latest and (I hope) last piece of mischief: a resolution backing the formation of a peacekeeping force to "monitor" the Somali government's struggle with Islamist foes. It also "partly lifted" the arms embargo and called for peace talks.

  2. Somalia: Pray or die, town tells residents (p. A16) - An AP item quoting an Islamic Courts official in Bulo Burti, one Sheik Hussein Barre Rage, warning that town residents who do not pray five times a day "will definitely be beheaded."
Neither one is encouraging for Somalia's friends.

* * *

P.S. Hassan Warsame has kindly supplied the following link to the text of the Security Council's Resolution 1725 (2006) by e-mail:

After a quick reading of the text, I'm more dismayed than ever, especially since it explicitly places the resolution under the "use of force if necessary" umbrella of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. It further mandates the peacekeeping force "to protect the members of the Transitional Federal Institutions and Government, as well as their key infrastructures, and to train the Transitional Federal Institutions’ security forces to enable them to provide their own security and to help facilitate the re-establishment of Somalia’s national security forces. No mention of protecting members of the Islamic Courts, of course, or training their security forces.

The resolution goes on to modify the arms embargo the Council previously imposed to permit import "supplies of weapons and military equipment and technical training and assistance intended solely for the support of, or use by, the force."

Finally, it warns that the Council intends to "consider taking measures against those that [seek] to prevent or block a peaceful dialogue process, overthrow the Transitional Federal Institutions by force, or take action that further threatens regional stability." And how about those that seek to overthrow the Islamic Courts or their institutions by force??

I find it dismaying that the Security Council members could unanimously adopt a resolution that is as manifestly one-sided as this one. Perhaps after I wade through the "explanations of vote" by the Council's individual members (they're included at the link above), I'll be less mystified.
Read more!

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Tragedy lurking ahead in Somalia

My good friend Sadia recently e-mailed me the following. I fully share her concern.


Reading this article published in New York Times (link is below) has created a great concern in my mind. I realize, that there is so much and so many other issues to deal with, including the aftermath of the drought, the complicated political turmoil and the serious humanitarian crisis that is current unfolding with the latest floods, but is there anything that can be done to avert the tragedy that is lurking ahead in Somalia?. There must be a peaceful way to save Somalia....there's got to be!

NYT link

Sadia Read more!

Robert Gates Hearings

On December 5, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), on behalf of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, asked supporters to submit questions they thought should be asked of Robert Gates at his confirmation hearings in the Senate. I submitted the following:

Will you call off the Special Operations forces based in Djibouti who are now meddling in Somalia and undercutting local efforts to achieve peace between the fragile transitional government and the reform-minded Islamic Courts (an effort we should be encouraging, not sabotaging)?

As a former U.S. ambassador to Somalia, I believe our role should be limited to (a) enforcing the U.N. arms embargo, (b) discouraging other nations from intervening militarily, and (c) supporting good-faith conciliation efforts.

T. Frank Crigler
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Start Peace Not War in Somalia

Poster received December 2 from Hassan W.
Read more!