While their attention is focussed on how to withdraw American troops from the insurgency and civil war in Iraq, most Americans are totally unaware that their government has blundered into another foreign policy disaster, in the northeast corner of Africa. The Bush administration's single-minded pursuit of its war on terror has left Somalia in the grips of an insurgency and a renewed civil war.
Remember the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia last winter? Most of the fighting in that war was done by Ethiopian troops that the Pentagon had helped train and equip. The United States also provided intelligence, as well as air strikes and backup by the U.S. Navy.
In short, the Somalia operation was an American proxy war, aimed at removing the Islamic government that had taken over the country. The Bush administration believed (probably correctly) that terrorists linked to Al Qaeda had found refuge in Somalia, and in the spirit of â€œif you are not with us you are against us,â€ helped topple the new government in Mogadishu. The fact that the government of the Union of Islamic Courts had brought a beginning of peace and stability to a country torn by decades of violence counted for little. The White House saw Somalia as a new front in its so-called Global War on Terror, and the invasion as a victory at little cost to America.
The cost to the Somalis, however, was disastrous. The American plan to install a client regime backfired. The capital, Mogadishu, is once again wracked by violence. Observers say a third of the city has been destroyed and an estimated 450,000 people have fled into the countryside. The invaders from Ethiopia, a country that is a traditional enemy of Somalia, are seen as a hated army of occupation. Assassinations and bombs have made life perilous as the country sinks into a whirlpool of tribal and clan violence.
"An estimated 450,000 people have fled into the countryside"
Omar Hassan, chairman of the Somali Union of Journalists, told the Voice of America, â€œIt is like an insurgency because it is like what is now happening in Iraq.â€ Elements of the ousted government are targeting the invaders and the new transitional government installed by the Ethiopians and Americans. The average citizen is caught in the crossfire. Hassan says â€Life for most Somalis â€“ and especially in Mogadishu - since last year has really gone down. Because when the Union of Islamic Courts was here, people were not worried about being killed.â€
Somali society, religion and politics are highly complex, but apparently the Bush Administration sees the country in black and white terms. If its preferred tool for tackling terrorism is a hammer, then every problem tends to look like a nail. Somali exiles and experts on the region believe the country needs development aid and patient peacemaking, not a hammering.
This does not bode well for the Bush administration's new military policy in Africa. The Pentagon has set up a new command called AFRICOM (see my Journal of February 15, 2007) that covers most of Africa, and is involved in anti-terrorism and training operations across a wide band of northern Africa, and in naval operations in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa. The latter is a particularly sensitive area. It already supplies close to 15 percent of the oil imported by the United States, and may be furnishing as much as 25 percent by 2015. A French expert on the region says America's real interest in the region is not so much the fight against terrorism as the desire to protect its interests in Africa. In other words, oil.
Although the Pentagon has sent a relatively small number of troops to Africa and is trying to keep a light footprint on the continent, it is already treading on African sensibilities. The Pentagon has found that two of Africa's major powers â€“ Nigeria and South Africa - are not ready to welcome AFRICOM, and it is having difficulty finding a country willing to host the headquarters of the new command.
As I noted, the American people have been paying little attention to their government's growing military involvement in Africa. That's a pity, because it might be useful to throw a little light on what their government has been doing there while no one was looking.