Somalia: The Forgotten Front of the War on Terror

The Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG), which was never applicable to most Somalis, is close to losing the few blocks in Mogadishu that it still controls, and the radical Islamists who go by the name al-Shabaab are on the verge of taking control of the parts of Somalia that haven't already seceded. The civilian death toll since the American-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 has reached 16,000, which makes the per capita annual civilian death rate in Somalia higher than that of Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. So it would seem be an appropriate time to reflect on American policy in Somalia.

Though the history of foreign intervention in Somalia goes back to colonial times and was especially detrimental during the Cold War-era Siad Barre regime, the most relevant starting point is the late 1980s, when Barre was losing his grip on Somalia, which was descending into a mix of anarchy and warlordism. The United States, unable to conceive of a people existing without a central state, intervened throughout the 1990s under the guise of various UN missions. The results were of course disastrous: hundreds of thousands of Somalis lost their lives in the ensuing civil war and resulting mass starvation. Americans were briefly aware of their government’s actions in Somalia during the first major intervention in the early 1990s, when the grisly aftermath of the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 portrayed in Black Hawk Down brought Somalia into the American political consciousness, but the relatively minor scale of the war and lack of obvious U.S. interests conspired to keep most Americans ignorant of the role their government played in prolonging the violence in Somalia.

Eventually, the UN presence ended without success, as Bill Clinton realized that even the few dozen U.S. casualties suffered during the Battle of Mogadishu would not go down well back at home. Somalia was in no better position than before the UN intervened; if anything, the Western presence only prolonged the conflict. The objective of the UN missions was to support a democratic alternative to the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, though history has shown that Aidid's rule was itself tenuous. Despite his defeat of the UN force, Aidid never managed to cement control and was unsurprisingly killed in 1996 fighting for power. Had foreign countries declared that they were not going to intervene in the civil war and would not favor one faction over another, Somalia would surely have devolved sooner into the relatively peaceful and prosperous anarchic equilibrium that reigned following the failed UN missions.

After the international community gave up on Somalia, the reconstruction began. Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of a central authority in Mogadishu and elsewhere, the country's economic actors quickly took up the task of rebuilding what the years of dictatorship and war had destroyed. According to Peter Leeson [.pdf], an economist who studied the effects of anarchy on Somalia's development, Somalia under statelessness in the 2000-2005 period outperformed the Somalia of the last five years of Barre's rule in the late 1980s. On key development indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality rate, and access to sanitation, Somalia's rates of improvement were higher than those of its neighbor Kenya and the other countries in the Horn of Africa. Competition in the private sector has given Somalia some of the cheapest and most reliable mobile phone service in all of Africa, a bevy of competing low-cost air carriers, a thriving seaport, and twice as many primary schools as before the outbreak of civil war.

Despite Somalia's gains under statelessness, the international community – and especially the U.S. – was eager to reestablish a state in Somalia, as it was believed that this was a necessary precursor to peace and prosperity. In addition, the issue of Islamist terrorists taking refuge in Somalia took on an added significance after 9/11, though al-Qaeda's operations in Somalia began in the early 1990s. By 2006, it became known the the U.S. was secretly arming warlords in Somalia in their fight against various Islamic groups vying for control of Mogadishu and other parts of Somalia. The American public might not have been able to stomach the sight of the corpses of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, but proxy wars are quiet and relatively cheap – though the harm inflicted upon the Somali people would be just as great.

Like every foreign intervention in Somalia, this one ended in utter failure. Its support of the warlords backfired against the U.S., as Somalis began to support the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) over what they perceived to be the brutal and corrupt rule of the warlords, who might never have attained the power that they had if the Americans hadn't been supporting them. The ICU swept across the country into power, becoming the most coherent government that Somalia had had since the collapse of Siad Barre's dictatorship.

Never one to learn its lesson, the U.S. tried yet again to use military might to oust the Islamists. And it succeeded for a short time, but that, too, would come to haunt the Americans. The U.S. engaged the ICU in a proxy war with Ethiopia as its stand-in, and though the Ethiopians drove out the ICU and established the Transitional Federal Government, that victory was short-lived. Two years and tens of thousands of civilians' lives and a humanitarian disaster later, the Ethiopians are set to withdraw in a few weeks, while the TFG controls a few neighborhoods in Mogadishu and nothing more.

And who, you might ask, replaced the TFG? Al-Shabaab, an extremist splinter group of the original Islamic Courts Union, which has been reincorporating many elements of its old parent organization. With Somalia's new Islamists came suicide bombings and foreign jihadists, elements that weren't present in such numbers under the reign of the ICU (or, for that matter, the statelessness that preceded them), not to mention a brand of sharia that metes out punishments like the stoning of a 13-year-old rape victim a few months ago.

Al-Shabaab's reign, though, won't last long, as Somalis are both fiercely independent and anti-statist, not to mention rather moderate Muslims. (Indeed, the resistance against al-Shabaab has already begun.) The xeer, the indigenous Somali system of law that persisted throughout times of government and reemerged with renewed significance after the collapse of the Barre state, was a natural outgrowth of the nomadic, pastoral culture of the Somalis. Based on family ties and clans but malleable enough to accommodate secession and non-familial groupings, it was easily adapted to the exigencies of modern, capitalist urban life. (For more about the xeer, see the late Michael Van Notten’s definitive work on the subject, The Law of the Somalis.) The U.S. has shown no signs of recognizing the danger in trying to impose a state on a people who have never known an effective one – even during the short-lived post-colonial democratic era, clannishness reared its ugly head, and the default voting option for most Somalis is still to vote with their clan.

Hopefully President Obama will learn from the past and realize that the best way to rid Somalia of violence and radical Islam is to leave it alone and to encourage other countries to do the same. But somehow, I don't have much faith in any American president resigning himself to letting any part of the world go ungoverned.