Eighteen years later, Somali’s problems are largely unchanged. Today, as in the early ’90s, fighting splits Somalia – although this time the major division is between the internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government and the hard-line Al Shabab Islamic group, rather than strictly between the clans. The current famine, meanwhile, is unequivocally as bad as that in the early ’90s, with as many as half of Somalia’s eight million people dependent on food aid.
Both sides in the Somalia conflict are ‘weaponizing’ humanitarian shipments. Al Shabab has banned the United Nations and aid groups from distributing aid in the territories Al Shabab controls, calling aid a tool of Western powers aiming to control Somalia. Al Shabab fighters have reportedly killed several families fleeing Al Shabab territory for areas where food is still being handed out.
Meanwhile, corrupt TFG officials are allegedly withholding donated food and doling it out at their own whim. ‘Whatever humanitarian (agencies) donate doesn’t reach the right people who deserve the donations, but instead goes astray to the wrong people,’ says Khalif Bashir Ali, unofficial leader of the Afgoye refugee camps just outside Mogadishu.
Today, hundreds of thousands of refugees are on the move in Somalia. Some head for Afgoye; others are bound for Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and other neighbouring countries – all of which are struggling with droughts of their own and so can’t safely absorb starving Somalis. That’s exactly the kind of dire scenario that US Army Maj. Shannon Beebe, an Africa strategist, probably pictured when he warned against ‘insecurities and the conditions of human beings that create…insecurities across state borders.’
Conditions today are very similar to those that led to the bloody 1992 US intervention in Somalia. But there won’t be a repeat. Memories of the Battle of Mogadishu, not to mention the continuing trauma of the United States’ land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mean Washington has zero appetite for more large-scale troops deployments.
Instead, the United States pursued separate air, naval and proxy ground campaigns that, today, have combined into a major demonstration of offshore balancing – but not without some serious hiccups along the way.
A Lost Decade
By 1995, the last US and UN troops had evacuated Somalia. For years following the end of the peacekeeping mission, Washington — and most foreign governments, for that matter – all but gave up on trying to influence events in the ruined country.
In a decade of isolation, a new form of government arose in the war-torn country. With everyday Somalis becoming more radicalized, a loose system of Islamic judges arose in Mogadishu. Their courts merged into a highly legalized but rudimentary government known as the Islamic Courts Union.
The ICU was a mix of hard-line and moderate Islamists. It was fairly popular and enjoyed a high level of support from Eritrea, which has long viewed Somalia as a proxy in its ongoing feud with neighbouring Ethiopia. The hardliners, and Eritrea’s patronage, together represented the seeds of the ICU’s destruction. But for a few years, there was relative calm in Somalia under the ICU’s reign.
Then al-Qaeda attacked the United States. In an instant, Washington’s attitude towards Islamists in any country hardened. Somalia no longer got a pass, though a working US policy for that country took several years to evolve. And it’s fair to say it didn’t evolve organically. For in 2006, Ethiopia, which had been positioning itself as a US partner in counter-terrorism, essentially hijacked Washington’s nascent Somalia strategy when it proposed a joint invasion of Somalia aimed at destroying the ICU. In usurping US efforts, Ethiopia exposed a major flaw in offshore balancing, specifically in its reliance on proxy ground forces with their own, sometimes competing, interests.
The ICU didn’t explicitly advocate terrorism, and there were probably only a handful of al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in Somalia at the time. But that nuance was lost on the George W. Bush Administration. Washington pledged support for the Ethiopian attack, including ‘intelligence sharing, arms aid and training,’ according to USA Today.
With this backing, plus air cover provided by US AC-130 gunships and carrier-based fighters and assistance on the ground by US Special Forces, the Ethiopian army launched a Blitzkrieg-style assault on Somalia in December 2006.
Ethiopian tanks quickly routed the ICU’s lightly armed fighters. ‘The Somalia job was fantastic,’ Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan told then-US Central Commander boss Gen. John Abizaid in 2007.
The Bush Administration agreed with that assessment, at least initially. And the proxy approach to African security challenges quickly became central to Washington’s policy for the continent. In 2007, the Pentagon formed a new regional command called ‘Africa Command’ to oversee operations in most of Africa.