I had occasion three days ago to deliver a lecture on Somalia to faculty and students at a small Christian college in North Carolina. The timing couldn't have been better, since recent ugly events in the news served to make my points very clear: (1) the U.S. is making the same mistakes it made in Somalia twelve years ago, when our attempt to be helpful ended in tragedy and humiliation; (2) our efforts this time around have already set back what progress the Somalis themselves had made in overcoming clan enmities and patching their nation back together since we bugged out in 1994; and (3) if we continue to blunder as we have since the first of the year, treating Somalia as a battlefront in our so-called War on Terror, we may well find ourselves sucked back into a problem we can't and don't know how to solve.
In posting my overly long text here, I invite you to browse through it but to pay particular attention to the latter third or so. I hate to claim satisfaction from any supposed "insights," but I believe I've pinpointed some of the reasons why things have turned ugly — and unfriendly toward the U.S. — all over again.
Campbell University — Buies Creek, North Carolina
March 20. 2007
I’m pleased to have the opportunity to talk with you this evening about America’s relations with Somalia, a country that’s managed to find its way back into the news headlines recently. Just two weeks ago today, after fifteen years of virtual anarchy, a wobbly “transitional” government was finally installed in the Somali capital, Mogadishu. Curiously, it was put in place by Ethiopian military forces backed by the United States, both countries claiming that Somalia was in danger of falling into the hands of Islamic radicals. And indeed, the Ethiopian invaders had ousted a band of Islamic clerics as they marched into Mogadishu. Shortly afterward, the first elements of an eventual 8,000-man African Union peacekeeping force began arriving from Uganda, empowered by the U.N. Security Council to replace the Ethiopians, train a new national security force, and keep the lid on until the government gets its feet securely planted.
Sounds auspicious, doesn’t it? Some good news at last from Somalia. But whether these latest efforts to resurrect the Somali nation-state will succeed is, to say the very least, uncertain. And what the U.S. should do — or should not do — to move this process along is even more problematic. Personally, I believe we’ve set out on a dangerous path, forgetting lessons we should have learned when our Black Hawk helicopters went down in Mogadishu fourteen years ago. As you’ll see, I think we made matters worse rather than better when we tried to be helpful in Somalia last time, and I’m worried that we’re repeating our mistakes — even compounding them — this time. . . .
As you may be aware, I spent three years in Somalia just before retiring from the foreign service in 1990. Those were fascinating times — challenging, sometimes harrowing, but very satisfying overall, both professionally and personally. But Somalia was no bed of roses. It’s a harsh country, mostly hot, dry, windy and rocky—a lot like the Arizona desert where I grew up. Its people can be harsh too, but you always knew where you stood with them. They’re bold, handsome, proudly independent — and egalitarian, even to a fault. When I traveled around the country — which by the way, I was able to do then, without bodyguards or armed escorts — and stopped to talk to local officials or clan elders, my Somali driver Shariff thought nothing of walking in uninvited, sitting down, and joining in my conversations, often making interesting comments of his own.
If you saw the movie “Black Hawk Down,” you’re likely to have a very different impression of Somalis from mine. But almost all Somalis I met deeply admired America and Americans. Here’s one of my favorite recollections:
• It’s the 4th of July, during our last year in Somalia. Several hundred guests — Somalis from all walks of life, and practically every member of the government — have come to the American embassy to join us celebrating the inauguration of a beautiful new chancery building. The highlight of the ceremony is, believe it or not, a lengthy poem — Somalis take great pride in their rich tradition of oral literature, passed along in the style of Homer from one generation to another. This, however, was to be a brand-new poem, composed for us by one of the country’s rock-star calibre woman poets. It was almost shamefully flattering of America and Americans. It even compared our new hi-tech building, with its bright lights, sparkling windows, shining floors, and blinking electronic systems, to our Apollo moon-landing achievements.
• Picture the scene with me: a clear, star-filled sky in the embassy courtyard, a soft wind blowing off the Indian Ocean, this beautiful young poet, dressed in a flowing red gown that fluttered in the breeze, reciting her extraordinary poem from memory . . . and the crowd roaring its approval at the end of every verse.
So you can imagine how heartbreaking it was for me to see on television, less than three years later, how this very same embassy courtyard had become a scene of devastation and deadly conflict between American soldiers and angry Somali mobs. Shouldn’t my staff and I have seen this coming? Shouldn’t we have prevented it somehow? Well, in fact we did see it coming, and we tried to prevent it. But we were unsuccessful, and I believe I know why.
First, though, let’s recall what happened to turn our relations so bitter:
Just eighteen months after our beautiful embassy ceremony, Somali’s aging dictator, General Mohamed Siad Barre, lost his grip on power and was overthrown, literally dragged from his presidential palace by his own fleeing supporters, after running the country with an iron fist for almost twenty-five years,. The U.S. had been remarkably close to General Siad and his army during the 1980s. My embassy had been in charge of the largest U.S. military aid program in Africa. And in exchange, our armed forces were able to make use of Somali military bases and ports that were important to us for Cold War strategic reasons.
By 1990, however, we could see that Siad Barre’s days were numbered. His government had lost almost all popular support and was steadily rotting from the inside out. His army was unable to suppress the insurgent movements popping up around the country. His brutal treatment of opponents became an embarrassment. We fully expected his regime to collapse, and we had already closed our aid pipeline and sharply reduced our embassy staff. To be brutally frank, with the end of the Cold War, we no longer needed the dictator’s cooperation or access to Somali military facilities. So it made sense to Washington that we distance ourselves from him and hope we could work with his successor, whoever that might be.
And mind you, while these moves President Siad unhappy, they were very popular with the Somali people, who seemed unanimously hopeful that without our support he would fall. What we didn’t anticipate, however, nor I suspect did the Somalis, was how violent and bloody the struggle for power would be when the dictator fell. To be sure, it was a struggle that Siad Barre had largely brought upon himself by playing one clan family against another, but it soon grew into a full-fledged civil war that was not so different from our own. Mogadishu itself was practically destroyed, as rival clan militia sought to take control. Thousands were killed in the crossfire. Hospitals were quickly overwhelmed and medical supplies were soon exhausted. Fighting ravaged the countryside as well, destroying food stocks and decimating herds of livestock. Hundreds of thousands soon faced starvation.
With American encouragement, the U.N. Security Council took steps to curb the fighting, and blue-helmeted peacekeeping forces were flown in, but they were far too few in number to cope with the jealousies and hatreds that had erupted. Before long, television screens in this country became filled with ghastly images of suffering and deprivation.
God bless Americans — those images touched our hearts, and cries arose for our government to “do something” to rescue the starving Somalis. Evidently, the scenes of tragedy even touched the broken heart of poor George Bush—George H. W. Bush, that is—who had just suffered a stinging rebuff by the American people in the 1992 elections. Before leaving office, President Bush launched “Operation Restore Hope”, an unprecedented mercy mission into Somalia led by 30,000 combined U.S. military forces that pushed aside the warring clan militias, broke open the roadblocks they had put up, and cleared the way for relief agency trucks to deliver food, medicine and other supplies to the civil war’s innocent victims.
I had retired and left the government by then, but I was able to return to Mogadishu on the eve of our forces’ arrival, as a consultant to ABC’s “Nightline” news, and to witness their spectacular landing and deployment. Throngs of grateful Somalis danced in the city’s streets and crowded the airport runways to welcome the amazed soldiers. The crowds were so thick, in fact, that crowd control became the troops’ first military challenge. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
MISTAKE ONE: Trying to “fix” problems we don’t understand
During the next four months, our troops restored a great deal of hope in Somalia. Thousands of weapons were confiscated from fighters. Hundreds of miles of roads were reopened, cleared of mines, and bridges rebuilt by Army engineers. With relief organizations now able to operate in most of the country, medical facilities were reopened and mass starvation was averted. A safe guess is that over a half-million Somali lives were saved. Logically, it was now time for our troops to hand over responsibilities to someone else and come home.
Unfortunately, no one had given much thought to just how or with whom this hand-over would be arranged, in a country with no government at all. The bitter clan rivalries that were at the heart of the civil war had been momentarily swept aside to make way for the relief convoys, but they had certainly not been resolved. Most of us assumed that the U.N. would now take charge, perhaps with a token U.S. military force remaining to back up a refortified U.N. peacekeeping contingent.
However, the new Clinton administration, just then taking office in Washington, rightly suspected it was being handed a hot potato. In its view, Operation Restore Hope amounted to little more than a “band-aid.” Nothing had been done to correct what it perceived to be the “root problems” of clan mistrust and jealousies. With U.S. troops removed, they asked, what was to prevent the conflict from breaking out all over again, with yet another round of misery in its wake?
MISTAKE TWO: Trying to “rescue” Somalia with made-in-USA solutions
After intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, the new Secretary of State, Madelaine Albright, and U.N. Secretary General Boutros Ghali agreed on a plan to return responsibility to the U.N., but also give the United States a major voice in the operation. Instead of merely turning back the clock, the new UN peacekeeping force would be significantly larger, more “robust,” and authorized to use force as needed to impose order. Its commander would be a military officer on loan from the U.S. Navy, Admiral Jonathan Howe; his staff would include military and civilian specialists, mainly from the U.S., whose job would be to coax and prod the Somalis into forming a new democratic national governmental; and his resources would include an American rapid reaction force that would be posted just over the horizon, to be deployed in case matters got out of hand.
MISTAKE THREE: Taking sides in someone else’s dogfight
In fact, matters got out of hand rather quickly after the hand-over, when Pakistani members of the new UN force were sent to take possession of a major weapons cache controlled by General Mohamed Farah Aidiid, the most powerful of the clan warlords in Mogadishu. Gen. Aidiid’s forces objected strenuously, fierce fighting ensued, and some two dozen Pakistani troops (plus an unknown number of Aidiid loyalists) were killed. Admiral Howe was furious, as was Washington, and American troops responded by attacking sites controlled by Aidiid’s followers. One of these was a two-story residence where General Aidiid was believed to be meeting with his lieutenants. U.S. helicopter gunships virtually tore the house apart in two successive waves, the first killing scores of Somali men, and the second, numbers of women and children who had rushed to the scene. Aidiid, however, was not among them. In fact, intelligence later revealed that those present at the meeting were elders of Aidiid’s clan who, ironically, had gathered to discuss ways of restraining their warlord and making peace with the Americans.
MISTAKE FOUR: Applying force when conciliation was needed
Now it was the Somalis who were furious. Admiral Howe placed a sizeable bounty on Aidiid’s head, but it was never collected. Instead, crowds grew increasingly hostile toward foreigners, and incidents involving U.S. troops grew more frequent and intense, culminating in the now-famous “Black Hawk Down” incident that cost the lives of 18 American soldiers and left seventy-three wounded. Upwards of one thousand Somalis were killed in that same battle.
Americans were again horrified by TV images from Somalia, but this time it was by video footage of angry Somali mobs dragging bodies of American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu. Upset that matters had gotten out of hand and might grow worse, President Clinton immediately ordered a halt to all U.S. military operations against Aidiid and promised to remove all U.S. troops quickly. Five months later, all were gone.
Three lessons we should have learned
Our disastrous experience in Somalia sixteen years ago had serious reverberations on U.S. foreign policy through the rest of the Clinton administration, causing the president to shy away from engaging U.S. troops in Third World conflicts anywhere. Most notably, it discouraged our leadership from becoming involved in the Rwandan genocide that was unfolding just as our troops were returning home from Somalia.
But there were more mundane lessons that we should have drawn from our Somalia experience, lessons that might have prepared us to deal more effectively with future “failed state” crises—lessons that might even have helped if, God forbid, we found ourselves back in Somalia again. Here is my own personal short list:
In 2002, the Pentagon became so concerned about Somalia’s potential that it quietly established a small military base in neighboring Djibouti to serve as headquarters for a new Horn of African anti-terror task force. Some 1,500 U.S. civilian and military intelligence personnel are now assigned there, and a new five-year lease just signed will permit expanding the operation to six times its present size.
Among the activities that our personnel in Djibouti conduct “downrange,” as they say, is one that involves helicoptering into Somali villages and offering cash rewards for information on anyone suspected of harboring terrorists or preaching a “radical” brand of Islam. Just imagine the damaging effect this “finger-thy-neighbor” campaign has had on efforts of Somalis themselves to overcome the deep-set suspicions they have of each other — the very “root problem” that was blamed twelve years ago for the country’s civil war. One outstanding Somali peacemaker, a former colleague and friend of mine, was coldly murdered by masked gunmen in front of his wife and family eighteen months ago as a consequence of this project.
Another, even more flagrant example of ignoring the lessons of our past mistakes cropped up in the news just a few months ago:
• A group of determined Islamic clerics in Mogadishu had organized a militia that successfully trounced and ousted the clan warlords who’d been robbing and terrorizing the city’s inhabitants for a decade. Somalis at home and abroad were cautiously applauding these audacious clerics for bringing law and order to the capital city. Then it was learned that the very same ousted warlords had formed a so-called “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism” and had secured backing from the U.S. Defense department and C.I.A. to retake the city and drive out the clerics’ militia. This unbelievable “alliance” failed in its mission, and the warlords were again sent packing, while the Islamic clerics not only maintained their hold on Mogadishu but began to expand their sphere of influence beyond the capital.
How, I asked myself, could the Pentagon—burned so badly before by taking sides in Somali clan disputes—have repeated their mistake by backing the very warlords who had burned them before? And how had the CIA been conned into joining such a foolish enterprise?
I was still puzzling over this behind-the-scenes foolishness when, just before Christmas, an even bigger bombshell dropped and brought Somalia the front-page news attention I spoke of at the beginning of my talk:
• Somalia’s next-door neighbor and age-old enemy, Ethiopia—with explicit and very public United States approval and support — sent a major combat force across the border into Somalia for the purpose of rescuing a fragile new government that had lately set itself up in the town of Baidoa, close to the Ethiopian border. With the support of U.S. C-130 gunships launched from inside Ethiopia, it took the invading force only three days to blast its way across the country to Mogadishu, chase away the Islamic clerics once again, and plant the new government’s prime minister and his cabinet in their places.
“Wow!” I thought to myself. “Organizing a comic-opera coalition of warlords to track down a few terrorists was one thing; organizing a full-fledged, heavily armed, and distinctly Christian invading force to save Somalia from Muslim radicals was quite another!” Trust me, it immediately brought to mind our disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.
(Now before I conclude and invite your questions, let me say a brief word about this “transitional” Federal Government that the Ethiopians have just propped up in Mogadishu with our help, because its beginning was hopeful and, if all goes well, it may yet turn out to be a good thing. It was formed two years ago in Nairobi, Kenya by a large congregation of rival Somali warlords, political leaders, and clan elders, after many months of acrimonious bargaining and occasional fist fights. Sponsored by the U.N. and generously supported by the Kenyan government, the birthing process was nothing if not democratic. But the outcome was flawed because those elected to office couldn’t agree on where and how to set up shop in Somalia’s dangerous environment. So it sat for over a year, stymied and powerless, in far-away Nairobi. The U.S. has never recognized this “transitional” government and it appeared to take interest in it only with the rise of the Islamic clerics’ movement in Mogadishu six months ago.)
Which brings us back to the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in December, which the U.S. supported:
• Once again, the justification was our worldwide “War on Terror” and the supposed threat to American interests posed by the movement’s Islamist “radicals.” This time, however, the devastating firepower of our airborne gunships was aimed directly at Somalis — remnants of the clerics’ rag-tag army that had been outgunned and overwhelmed by the Ethiopian invaders and were overtaken by the C-130 gunships as they fled toward the Kenyan border. Those lucky enough to escape our airborne assault were intercepted and interrogated by Kenyan border police—with the encouragement of officials in our embassy in Nairobi. Most have since been forced back across the border, and many — in violation of international laws protecting refugees — have been turned over to the new government’s police. At least one, as it turns out, a U.S. citizen named Amir Mohamed Meshan, is now imprisoned in Ethiopia.
Not all the clerics’ militant supporters fled, however. During the past four weeks, the newly installed government has faced a storm of opposition from armed insurgents inside Mogadishu itself that even its Ethiopian sponsors have been unable to suppress. And already, the African Union’s peacekeeping forces that are now arriving to replace the Ethiopians have run into armed assaults from followers of the defeated Islamic clerics. Far from pacified by either invaders or peacekeepers, Mogadishu itself—after six months of tranquility under the Islamic clerics—has once again become a battlefield.
What remains to be seen is how invested the United States really is in the outcome of this contest. Enough to send in troops of our own if need be? Is it possible that a growing Iraq-style insurgency — and perhaps another “Black Hawk Down” — could force the international peacekeepers to retreat again from Somalia, just as happened thirteen years ago?
Have we indeed learned any lessons at all from our earlier experience in Somalia? Or has the Nine-eleven tragedy simply erased those lessons from our memory? Right now, I’m not optimistic. But I hope I’m wrong.