U.S. policy ensures it stays a failed state
January 13, 2007, Thomas Walkom
American-backed, foreign Christian troops intervene in a Muslim civil war to unseat the winning Islamist side; a U.S. warplane searching for alleged terrorists in that same country blasts the wrong people; both the European Union and the United Nations express their dismay; Canada, home to tens of thousands of immigrants from this war-torn, African nation, says nothing.
Does any of this sound familiar?
If not, it should. Somalia is making headlines again and the world is nervous. That's because this week's events in that East African country are eerily reminiscent of other failed Western adventures in other far-off Muslim lands.
Somalia, of course, is neither Afghanistan nor Iraq. It has its own troubled history – from the days of colonialism (Italian and British), through a period of pseudo-Marxist dictatorship to a state of near-anarchy and lawlessness that has lasted since that dictator was deposed in 1991.
Twelve years ago, hopes for a new and revitalized post-Cold War era of UN peacemaking were crushed in the gunfire and rubble of Somalia, as local clan warlords – through sheer, perverse brutality – made it clear that they would brook no outside interference in their efforts to destroy their own land.
(Canada, incidentally, won no honour in that adventure. That was the peacemaking effort during which a few bored Canadian commandos decided, for a lark, to torture and kill a Somali teenager.)
The world forgot about Somalia after that. But Somalis persevered. Massive numbers immigrated to countries like Canada. About 100,000 are believed to be in Toronto alone.
For some, emigration was simply a way to escape chaos. For others, including many of the local warlords, a foreign passport provided a bolthole for their families.
And for still others in the country's business elite, as U.S. political scientist Ken Menkhaus points out, a foreign passport was sheer economic necessity. Most countries tend not to recognize Somali passports – understandably since there is no functioning national government there. So, any Somali who wants to do business – and, oddly enough, there are many thriving concerns in Mogadishu – needs foreign papers.
Saudi-style Islamic fundamentalism flared occasionally in Somalia. But the country's more easygoing Sufi traditions were not particularly amenable to the no-fun, no video-games, women-in-burqas style affected by the fundamentalists.
So, the Islamists instead began to concentrate on something that was truly lacking in their country – order. This gave rise to the Islamic courts movement, so-called because it provided some kind of rule of law where none had existed.
The new sharia courts varied. Some relied heavily on traditional clan remedies wherein miscreants were ordered to pay restitution to the families of those wronged. Other employed Saudi-style versions of sharia law – such as stoning adulterers or amputating the hands of thieves.
Western reporters found the courts exotically barbaric. But ordinary Somalis were more amenable. While they were reluctant to embrace the full panoply of fundamentalist Islam, many were grateful for anything that could put an end to the unremitting violence of clan warfare.
For the same reason, the Union of Islamic Courts won the support of the country's powerful business class.
It's hard to run a soft-drink factory (and there is one in Mogadishu) when armed men are liable to blow it up.
This may help explain the Islamists' success last summer when they soundly trounced the forces of the UN-backed transitional federal government.
Which in turn brings us to George W. Bush, the war on terror and the events of the past two weeks.
The 2001 attacks on New York and Washington rekindled American interest in Somalia. The U.S. had long believed that three Al Qaeda operatives suspected of having bombed the American embassy in Nairobi in 1998 were hiding out in that country. So, it is perhaps understandable that Bush was not well-disposed toward Somalia's Union of Islamic Courts.
By 2002, foreign journalists reported that Americans in dark sunglasses were arriving in small planes to negotiate with anti-Islamist warlords. A UN investigation concluded that there was no evidence that Somalia had become a terrorist base. True, some Somalis were believed to have "links" to Al Qaeda. Indeed, the U.S. is using this argument to justify its latest, botched assassination attempt, saying that while its air strike didn't get the people it was targeting, it did kill some with "ties" to them.
But as Menkhaus points out, this doesn't necessarily mean very much. "Everyone is linked to everyone in Somalia," the sometime U.S. State Department adviser says. "Networks and relationships are a form of social capital. The question is: What is the significance of these links?"
Still, Washington remained suspicious. It refused to co-operate with one UN-backed transitional government cobbled together in 2000, largely because it included representatives from the Islamic courts movement.
When that government attempt failed, another that excluded the Islamists was set up. Both the U.S. and neighbouring Ethiopia were more amenable to it. Canada, as usual, took no formal position, according to a foreign affairs department official. Predictably, the Union of Islamic Courts was opposed.
That led last year to another civil war. In an effort to affect the outcome, the U.S. quietly supported an anti-Islamist faction of warlords. That only served to make the Islamic courts movement more popular. By the fall, it had gained control of almost the entire country.
Two weeks ago, Ethiopia invaded on the side of the anti-Islamists. Predominantly Christian Ethiopia is America's main client state in the region. So it is not surprising that this invasion was viewed inside Somalia as another American attempt at proxy intervention.
That perception was bolstered on Monday when a U.S. warplane strafed a group of Somalis, in a failed effort to assassinate a man suspected of having been involved in the Nairobi bombing. On Thursday, Washington admitted it had killed the wrong people.
So, here we are again. As in Afghanistan, the war on terror has trumped rationality. Faced with a choice between a somewhat orderly country run by people it doesn't particularly like or a failed state that has to be propped up by foreign troops, Washington seems to have again chosen the latter.
Mogadishu is once again degenerating into Dodge City and the populace is angry. Up to now, failed state Somalia has miraculously avoided becoming an anti-Western terror hub. But you can only mess about with a country so many times. Eventually, the prophecy fulfils itself.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
U.S. policy ensures it stays a failed state