Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Steve Bloomfield breaks new ground in Somalia reporting

There’s fierce competition for the title of the “worst crisis in Africa”. Most Africa-watchers will list Darfur, eastern Chad, northern Uganda, eastern DRC, noting in passing the last month’s violence in Kenya and the ongoing economic crisis in Zimbabwe. But Steve Bloomfield makes a persuasive case that the current situation in Somalia is the worst catastrophe currently unfolding in Africa… and one of the most avoidable.

I’ve written at length about the situation in Somalia over the past year. For a quick intro to the situation, you might try “Somalia: Possibly More Complex than Nigeria”. If you’ve got lots of time to kill, you could follow some of my other posts on the topic:

December 7, 2006 – UN Peacekeepers in Somalia – Is that a good thing?
December 21, 2006 – Ken Menkhaus’s insights on Somalia
December 28, 2006 – Ethiopian Army Seizes Mogadishu
December 29, 2006 – Ethiopian Liberators greeted with cheer and flowers
January 4, 2007 - A historic opportunity for what?
January 11, 2007 - A quagmire no one wants to be stuck in
June 22, 2007 – An update on the “third front”
November 19, 2007 – The possible resumption of the world’s stupidest war
December 14, 2007 – Somalia spirals out of control. Or it’s completely peaceful. Depends on who you ask.

Or you could accept this incomplete, biased and massively oversimplified summary:

Somalia has been without a central government since 1991 – it’s been run by somewhat functional governments in northern provinces Somaliland and Puntland, and by competing groups of warlords in the south. There have been thirteen unsuccesful attempts to create national unity governments for Somalia, all of which have failed. Attempt #14 – the Transitional Federal Government – has support of the UN, the US and has been able to occupy southern Somalia with the backing of the Ethiopian army. The TFG, backed by the Ethiopian Army, supported by US military assistance, chased out the Union of Islamic Courts, a group of warlords who managed to bring some semblance of stability to Mogadishu and its environs by introducing a form of sharia law.

Ethiopia got involved because it sees a strong Islamist Somalia as a threat – specifically, it is fighting a civil conflict in its eastern Ogaden region, which shares a border with Somalia and which some Somalis see as a part of Greater Somalia. Eritrea may have gotten involved on the side of the UIC, as a way of opposing their enemy Ethiopia… with whom they are threatening to resume fighting the world’s stupidest war. The US got involved because it feared that a UIC-controlled Mogadishu would become a haven for Al-Qaeda. Got all that?

Ethiopia invaded in late 2006, with intelligence, training and logistical support from the US, rapidly routed UIC, which dispersed, a common tactic in guerilla warfare. Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that Ethiopia is trapped in its own “Vietnam”, an unwinnable guerilla war that’s sapping its strength. The US has bombed Somali targets several times with limited success. The AU is on the ground as a peacekeeping force, but only 1600 of a promised 8,000 troops have shown up. Meanwhile, violence is increasing and spreading north into previously stable Puntland.

All of this is set-up for Bloomfield’s must-read article. He’s followed the situation very closely and has several assertions in his article that I’ve not seen elsewhere.

– Despite early American enthusiasm for this new proxy war, it’s been stunningly unsuccesful at attacking Al-Qaeda leadership. “‘They haven’t got anybody,’ said one European official. ‘It has been an absolute disaster.'”

– The US government not only trained but armed the Ethiopian forces that currently occupy Somalia.

– The Ethiopian/US invasion has strengthened the hand of hardline, international Islamists, and weakened the more moderate forces that had helped stabilize Mogadishu. Invading to Somalia to unseat Al Qaeda may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy – if they weren’t there before the invasion, they are now.

– Contractors are building Africa’s third-largest airstrip in Bosasso, a small port city that serves as the capital of Puntland. Speculation is that the airstrip is designed to allow major airlifts of troops and materiel.

– Former TFG prime minister Ali Mohammed Gedi has been allowed to abscond with millions in government funding, has purchased a home in Los Angeles and “US officials have negotiated a position for him at the University of California in Los Angeles.”

In the meantime, at least 600,000 have fled the fighting in Mogadishu and are scattered in refugee camps in southern Somalia or over the border in Kenya. Providing support to these refugees is incredibly difficult as piracy at Somali ports is rampant, and aid convoys are stopped every few miles by militias. (A less sinister interpretation of the Bosasso runway is that it would make it easier to bring in large amounts of aid.)

I’m obsessed with the situation in Somalia not because of the humanitarian dimension – obviously, there are half a dozen crises in sub-Saharan Africa that demand more international attention and aid, and I’d prefer to avoid the argument about which is most important or most undercovered. I’m obsessed because I fear that Somalia is how America will fight wars in the future, if its citizens don’t demand we stop fighting this way.

It would have been nigh impossible to gain widespread public support for a military intervention in Somalia with wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the US made common cause with a serial human rights violator and used his army – which has been accused of conscripting doctors and teachers into its overstretched forces – to unseat a government which had achieved a degree of stability. In the process, we’ve helped increase the violence and danger in an unstable nation and likely have strengthened the hand of Islamic extremists. Whoops. (It’s worth reading “Making Exceptions for Ethiopia”, an op-ed by Tom Porteous, the London director of Human Rights Watch, in the Guardian.)

But the dangerous thing about Somalia is that no one is paying attention. Mention a “third front” in the perpetual, aimless war on terror and the vast majority of Americans will respond with a blank gaze. We’ve read countless words about Bill Clinton’s accusations that Obama wasn’t really against the Iraq war, but I’ve yet to see a journalist ask either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama their opinion on US involvement in Somalia. “Senator, do you believe that using other country’s military forces as a proxy for US aims, as we’ve done in Somalia with the Ethiopian military, is a legitimate foreign policy option for the US?” should do it. Let me know how that goes.

Okay, rant over. You’re off the hook for another two months, dear readers, assuming nothing dramatic happens.

One Response to “Steve Bloomfield breaks new ground in Somalia reporting”

  1. Can Sar says:

    This was a fascinating read as always, I have your linked post on the topic open in tabs next to this one and am looking forward to reading them.

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