How to create Africa’s Afghanistan
Just when long-suffering Somalis think things cannot get worse, along come US helicopter gunships.
It appears as if the Americans must be enjoying themselves so much being bogged down in the Afghan war, that they want to try to create another Afghanistan in the Horn of Africa. That would seem to be just about the only sensible explanation for Washington’s policy towards Somalia, which has culminated this week in air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda camps in the country’s coastal swamps.
Washington policy towards Somalia has veered from one extreme to another in recent years. But the results have been consistent: at every stage, its interventions have succeeded in stirring up conflict and making matters worse. The latest turn seems likely to be no exception, a dramatic illustration of what happens when foreign policy runs out of control.
A bit of background should help to put current events in perspective. The Horn of Africa was an important arena for Western and Soviet intervention during the Cold War, with both sides sponsoring proxy wars and supporting unpopular governments. In Somalia, the brutal dictator Siad Barre switched sides from the Soviets to the Americans in the late 1970s. Washington then propped up his regime until 1989, reportedly to the tune of some $100million a year. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, America no longer had strategic need of the likes of Barre. The USA withdrew its support, his regime collapsed, and Somalia descended into factional strife.
After the Cold War Somalia became the scene for a different sort of US and Western intervention, as the West sought to assert its global authority under the new banners of humanitarianism. In 1992, as almost his last act in office, President George HW Bush sent 25,000 American troops into famine-wracked Somalia ostensibly to guarantee aid supplies, in Operation Restore Hope. That this operation was primarily intended to restore the image of US power was made clear when the marines restaged parts of the landing for the cameras, so that the media could get the right pictures. The invaders’ lack of knowledge or interest in Somalia was captured by a story doing the rounds at the time, which had one US marine asking his sergeant which Somalis were the good guys and which the bad guys. To which the sergeant supposedly replied, ‘The good guys are the skinny ones, the bad guys are the fat ones….’
Under new US President Bill Clinton, the US and UN forces quickly became embroiled in Somalia’s internal conflicts between competing ‘warlords’, with predictably dire consequences. First the Americans backed the warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed against rival clan chiefs. Then they changed tack, branded Aideed the Somali ‘Hitler’ (sound familiar?), and tried to hunt him down. This operation culminated in the infamous ‘Battle of Mogadishu’ in October 1993, when US special forces and helicopter gunships blundered into a catastrophic firefight which left hundreds of Somalis dead and in which, more importantly from Washington’s perspective, 18 American soldiers were not only killed but some of their bodies were dragged through the city streets. (For the Hollywood version, see Black Hawk Down.) Clinton pulled out the humiliated US military. Somalia had now all but ceased to exist as a nation state, as warlords vied for control of clan fiefdoms. (See Somalia: killed by ‘kindness’, by Brendan O’Neill.)
You might have thought that American presidents had learnt their lesson about staying out of Somalia by now. But with the launch of the global ‘war on terror’ after 9/11, the Bush administration started panicking that the al-Qaeda leaders supposedly driven from Afghanistan might land up in Somalia, listed as another ‘failed state’ (I wonder who could be responsible for that?). Attention focused on the rise of the Union of Islamic Courts, a loose coalition of Islamic groups seeking to re-impose some order in Mogadishu in the name of Sharia law. This inevitably brought them into conflict with the warlords.
Mogadishu warlords put aside their longstanding rivalries to launch the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) to oppose the Islamic courts. As the name suggests, this motley outfit became the unoffocial Somali wing of Bush’s war on terror, and was funded by the CIA. Thus America signed up to support the same warlords who had fought against it a decade ago. Some warlords became incorporated into the official-but-impotent Somali government.
The result of this latest intervention was that America effectively helped to create a popular Islamist movement. The Union of Islamic Courts grew in opposition to the US-backed ARPCT, finally taking control of Mogadishu after fierce fighting in 2006. The courts then reopened Mogadishu’s airport and seaport for the first time in a decade, banned guns from the streets, and drove pirates (who had held international organisations to ransom) from the surrounding areas. Many Somalis who were by no means Islamic radicals supported the courts’ campaign to restore order, seeing even this collection of Islamists as being preferable to the warlord alternative.
The US response to all of this was to encourage its allies in the neighbouring Ethiopian government to invade Somalia and fight alongside the warlords in support of the ‘legitimate’ government. This they did in December 2006, the well-equipped Ethiopian forces quickly driving the Islamists out of Mogadishu. The people of the city celebrated the return of the warlords by turning off all the lights and shutting up shop.
Despite the return of chaos to the streets of Mogadishu, however, the US authorities apparently considered this a major strategic success. Thus they moved to take advantage of the situation this week, by launching air-strikes against suspected al-Qaeda bases in the coastal swamps, where they claim leading terrorists responsible for the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were sheltering. At the time of writing the immediate military results are unclear, with American claims to have got their men countered by local reports of civilian casualties.
The wider political results of the latest US intervention, however, should already be clear enough. It risks plunging Somalia into another round of Afghan-style conflict and turmoil, with every chance of the instability spreading elsewhere in east Africa.
Historically, this region is no hotbed of Islamic militancy. Yet US policymakers seem to be doing their darnedest to rectify that situation. Even before these events, the past few years had given rise to a widespread conspiratorial belief that America and in particular the CIA are behind everything that goes wrong in Africa today.
At the end of December, as the UIC fled Mogadishu, a young Somali human rights worker gave a telling interview to the BBC. He described how the fear of a return to ‘chaos, confrontation and lawlessness’ in the city had grown alongside anger with the Americans and their Ethiopian agents. ‘When helicopters and warplanes appeared over our city and the bombs were dropped on Mogadishu airport, we got the feeling that what is going on is an international war – the war on terror. The fighter planes were coming from the sea and US ships from their Djibouti base are in the Indian Ocean. People really do believe that the US is part of this mission.’ After this week’s air strikes, of course, they would appear to have pretty good reason to be certain of that.
Even if those strikes did hit their immediate terrorist target or not (and the record in Afghanistan is hardly encouraging for the Americans), they will have gained little in return for losing a lot more authority and support. As that Somali human rights worker summed it up, ‘Since 9/11 everything has changed. America used to be a dream for us….’
So why do they do it? The point is that the ‘war on terror’ is not really about what happens in Somalia or Afghanistan. It is about America and the West seeking to resolve their own problems on the international stage, thrashing around in the desert of Afghanistan, the towns of Iraq or the swamps of Somalia in search of a moral mission, a victory. The result is an out-of-control, fear-driven foreign policy, characterised by a mixture of risk-aversion and recklessness that has proved so disastrous in the Iraqi conflict and beyond.
President George W Bush’s decision to send more troops into Iraq this week has been described as a ‘surge’. In fact, like the air strikes in Somalia, it looks more like a violent spasm from an almost-paralysed foreign policy elite. Having talked up the war on terror as the test of America’s resolve, the pressure to ‘do SOMETHING’ leads to an apparently endless cycle of overreactions and own-goals.
Watching the news of the US air strikes, while waiting for President Bush to announce his ‘surge’, it was tempting to imagine that perhaps The Manchurian Candidate was right. Maybe the White House really had been taken over by some secret malign power bent on twisting US policy to its own ends. Why else would they be undermining their own global interests like this? (Some might think the plot was confirmed by New Labour’s Geoff Hoon announcing that the war in Afghanistan was ‘going to plan’!)
But perhaps another literary reference is more appropriate. Those air strikes on Somali swamps put me in mind of a passage in Heart of Darkness, where Conrad describes a French warship blasting away at the jungle off the coast of colonial Africa: ‘firing into a continent’, at a target nobody could see, presumably for no better purpose than to demonstrate that it could.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
spiked-issue: War on terror