Piracy and Washington: The Somalia Crossroads

Source: In These Times

In October 2008, Human Rights Watch rated Somalia the most ignored tragedy in the world. Almost 1.5 million Somalis are internally displaced, and an additional half million are refugees. Two decades of instability, including a U.S.-backed intervention by Ethiopian troops in December 2006, have failed to put Somalia on the map.

If the American public has thought about Somalia at all this decade, it was as the setting of the popular 2001 movie Blackhawk Down, based on the October 1993 battle in Mogadishu between U.S. troops and Somali militia, rather than as a real place where Washington’s policies were fueling conflict and prolonging suffering.

It took the drama of high seas piracy to bring Somalia back into the media spotlight. The hijacking of a Saudi supertanker in November was followed by the capture and sensational rescue of U.S. merchant ship Captain Richard Phillips in April.

“Kill the Pirates,” screamed a Washington Post op-ed by Reagan-era hawk Fred C. Iklé. On Fox News, George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, called for attacking the pirates’ bases on land to “really end this problem once and for all.”

After Navy sharpshooters rescued Captain Phillips, killing three pirates in the action, the media clamor abated. Once again, the debate on Somalia retreated to inside-the-beltway obscurity. (You can view the spike in public attention by searching for “Somalia” on Google Trends at www.google.com/trends.)

But for Somalis, the crisis continues. So does the danger that Washington may be tempted into military intervention that would be damaging for Somalis, for U.S. relations with Africa and for U.S. security. That risk exists, despite commendable caution thus far by Obama administration policymakers, who are aware of the potential for military actions to backfire.

The pirate problem

Piracy alone is unlikely to provoke such intervention, even if U.S. citizens are captured again. (Most captives have been from developing countries-especially the Philippines, which supplies about a third of merchant seamen worldwide.) Even after the bloody rescue of Captain Phillips, Somali pirates did not change their policy of holding out for ransom rather than threatening the lives of hostages. For the shipping companies, ransoms are a minor expense compared to the much larger costs associated with worldwide economic downturn.

Top U.S. naval commanders have clearly voiced agreement with the consensus among diplomats that military options are limited. Speaking to a conference in Bahrain on Gulf security in December 2008, Vice Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, was skeptical about attacking pirate bases on land. “I see people looking for an easy military solution to a problem that demands a non-kinetic [non-combat] solution,” Gortney said. The high risks of collateral damage, he added, “cannot be overestimated.”

In January the Navy set up Combined Task Force 151, a multilateral naval command directed against piracy in the region, headed by the Turkish navy since May. Outlining U.S. counter-piracy policy in April, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed multilateral measures, including collaboration with the United Nation’s Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia. And witnesses at congressional hearings on April 30, including Captain Phillips and representatives of the U.S. Department of Defense and Coast Guard, called for incremental measures to improve security.

Some pirates have claimed they act as a de facto coast guard, protecting Somalia from illegal fishing and dumping of toxic wastes. Those problems are real, and some of those initially recruited as pirates were fishermen whose livelihood was damaged. But most pirates declare openly that their primary motives are financial.

What is indisputable is that the lack of a functioning government in Somalia has fostered an environment in which weapons are easily available and piracy is among the few profitable career paths open to youth. On May 5, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Theresa Whelan told Congress, “The root causes of Somali piracy lie in the poverty and instability that continue to plague that troubled country, and addressing these root causes will be a lengthy, complicated and difficult process.”

The military option

Yet, Somalia’s chronic instability could provide an opportunity for hawks to prevail. Obama’s new emphasis on diplomacy coexists uneasily with the revival of enthusiasm for counterinsurgency doctrine in the Pentagon that has resulted from the U.S. military’s challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This situation is uncomfortably reminiscent of the 1960s, when “the best and the brightest” of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier team similarly embraced counterinsurgency as the key to winning Cold War conflicts in developing countries such as Vietnam. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the counterinsurgency mindset holds sway among American military commanders, it is likely that U.S. hopes for military victory will prove just as illusory as in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Compared to Afghanistan, Somalia is a sideshow for U.S. military strategists. But the fact that some anti-government insurgents in Somalia have links with al Qaeda makes it possible to slot the conflict there into the global-war-on-terror framework, even if the Obama administration has renounced that label as misleading.

The new administration, moreover, has inherited a newly formalized military command for Africa, AFRICOM, which has developed its own institutional momentum. Writing in the Boston Globe on April 15, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania Charles Stith called for the administration to boldly use the new capacity for intervention in Africa. “While AFRICOM has met some resistance,” Stith wrote, “this latest hostage-taking involving an American might be just the opportunity to jump-start conversations about how AFRICOM might be more effectively engaged.”

However, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson, who took office in May, told the BBC on May 16, “I think there would be no case of the U.S. re-engaging on the ground with troops [in Somalia].” But four days later Carson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States was committing $10 million on the ground in Somalia. Earlier, on May 3, AFRICOM’s deputy for military operations, Vice Admiral Robert T. Moeller, said that AFRICOM would be able to provide U.S. military trainers for Somalia if Washington decided to provide such training.

The current Somali government was established in January, under moderate Islamist Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, after the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops and the resignation of unpopular President Abdullahi Yusuf. The government enjoys virtually unanimous support from major international bodies, including the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations. It has also gained the backing of a wide range of Somalis, who were disillusioned with the hard-line Islamist insurgents who had garnered support by opposing Ethiopia.

But after a new insurgent offensive in May, the Somali government again stood on the brink of military defeat. Foreign fighters with links to al Qaeda had reinforced the insurgent ranks, reportedly receiving supplies from Eritrea. Defeat of government forces, or their continued weakness, could strengthen arguments that U.S. military action is needed to counter terrorism.

“There is little the U.S. can do to shape the outcome of the current fighting,” says Ken Menkhaus, a U.S. expert on Somalia. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 20, he warned that U.S. military intervention would likely weaken, rather than strengthen, an inclusive Somali government and would thus play into the hands of insurgents.

Many in the U.S. military understand that reality well. “When the United States embraces a government in Somalia, we delegitimize it,” a senior U.S. defense official told Reuters in late April.

History matters

To understand why the United States has so few options in Somalia, one only needs to glance at the historical record. Somalis have good reason to distrust the outcome of U.S. intervention, even if it is bundled with pledges of respect for Somali sovereignty and the authority of a multilateral mandate. For decades, Somalis have experienced the bungled interventions-alternating with neglect-of outside powers.

Somalis are historically united by language, culture and religion. But since independence in 1960, struggle for control of the post-colonial state has torn the country apart. When outsiders tried to promote reconciliation, they often wound up deepening political divisions by favoring power-hungry leaders and failing to involve a cross-section of Somali civil society.

Somali-American scholar Abdi Samatar, professor of geography and global studies at the University of Minnesota, notes a parallel between the Cold War and the current “war on terrorism” periods. In both eras, the nationalist thrust for Somali unity has run up against divisions between both Somali elites and outside forces that have backed different internal factions. Outside involvement has thus reinforced divisions and stoked conflict inside the country.

After independence, Somalia was a parliamentary democracy until 1969, when Muhammed Siad Barre seized power in a military coup. Siad Barre initially enjoyed some legitimacy because of widespread disgust with the corruption and factionalism of the parliamentary period. He also won support with popular initiatives, such as the expansion of education in the Somali language.

Internationally, Siad Barre aligned himself with the Soviet Union. But after his forces invaded Ethiopia in 1977, in a bid to absorb the Somali-speaking section of that country, he turned to the United States as his new patron. Somalis have not forgotten that Washington gave military support to the dictator as he stepped up repression and violence to stay in power.

Since Siad Barre was ousted in 1991 by clan warlords, Somalis have at times appealed for international help. But they have also suffered greatly from erratic outside involvement.

For a short period in 1992, Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun, leading the first U.N. mission to Somalia, skillfully built momentum for reconciliation among Somalis. But he was forced to resign when he ran afoul of the U.N. bureaucracy.

Between May 1992 and March 1995 there were two rounds of U.N. peacekeeping, overlapping and badly coordinated with two U.S. military missions (the first to secure famine relief deliveries from December 1992 to May 1993, and the second to provide support for the United Nations from May 1993 to March 1994). The U.S. forces and the second U.N. mission, which was commanded by U.S. Adm. Jonathan Howe, paid little attention to diplomacy. Howe chose friends and made enemies among Somali’s warlords, actively targeting General Mohamed Farah Aideed.

The result was the Blackhawk Down debacle in 1993, when 18 U.S. soldiers and more than 1,000 Somalis died in Mogadishu. That was followed by the gradual retreat of both the United States and the United Nations from anything more than marginal humanitarian engagement with Somalia-for a time, at least.

On June 8, 2006, the New York Times reported that the CIA had been funding a coalition of Somali warlords in exchange for the warlords’ promise to hunt down suspected terrorists. The CIA saw the emerging Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which aimed to build Somali unity based on Islam, as a dangerous alternative even though it was a broad coalition involving moderate as well as hard-line factions. Then led by current president Sheikh Sharif and by Sheikh Hassan Aweys (now one of the leaders of the anti-government insurgents), the ICU quickly won popular support and defeated the CIA-backed warlord alliance. For the rest of 2006, the Somali capital saw its most prolonged period of relative peace in more than 15 years.

The interlude came to an end when Ethiopian troops, backed by the United States, invaded in December 2006. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the fighting, and more than 300,000 were displaced. The U.S. military provided intelligence to Ethiopia in support of the invasion. It also used military facilities in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya to launch air raids and missile strikes against al Qaeda suspects at several sites in Somalia in 2007 and 2008. The air attacks killed several dozen Somali civilians and injured hundreds more, and they made U.S. backing for the invasion highly visible.

Ethiopia withdrew its troops in December 2008. A small African Union military mission currently protects Somalia’s besieged government.

Kenyan journalist and former U.N. official Salim Lone summed up the consensus view among African and international analysts: “Instead of engaging with the Islamists to secure peace, the United States has plunged a poor country into greater misery.”

The current crisis

At this writing in early June 2009, the situation in Somalia remains volatile. On May 26, the U.N. Security Council unanimously reconfirmed the mandate of the African Union peacekeepers. The African Union, for its part, called on the Security Council to go even further and impose sanctions against Eritrea.

But insurgents denounce both Sheikh Sharif’s coalition government and the African Union as tools of anti-Islamic Western powers. The military situation on the ground remains highly uncertain. The United Nations reported that more than 67,000 people had been newly displaced by the fighting in Mogadishu in May.

Scenarios projected for the next few months range from complete collapse of the internationally backed government, on the one extreme, to significant weakening of the insurgent forces through defections, on the other. What is certain is that outside forces, including the United States, will need flexibility and patience as well as good intentions to avoid mistakes that could make the situation much worse. Unfortunately, there is no sure formula for getting it right.

The Obama administration currently tilts toward diplomacy and pragmatism. On April 11, the Washington Post reported that some in the U.S. military are “frustrated by what they see as a failure to act” and are advocating air strikes against insurgent training camps.

But on April 13, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking at the Marine Corps War College in the midst of the pirate hostage crisis, stressed that “there is no purely military solution” to Somali piracy.

The appointment of Johnnie Carson as assistant secretary of state for African affairs significantly increases the chances that cooler heads will prevail. A career foreign service officer who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania in the 1960s, Carson is undoubtedly the person with the widest range of Africa experience ever to hold the assistant secretary post. He is respected in Washington and Africa’s diplomatic community. And he has good contacts with activists as well, dating back to his work as a staff member of the House Africa Subcommittee in 1979-1982, when it was a leading player in the anti-apartheid movement. Under his leadership, the State Department’s Africa Bureau will undoubtedly have a stronger voice in policy.

Yet one cannot rule out the possibility that events could precipitate U.S. military actions that heighten, rather than dampen, conflict in Somalia. The capacity is there. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which oversees as many as 2,000 American service members, has operated out of Djibouti since 2002, becoming part of AFRICOM in October 2008. The CJTF-HOA has coordinated U.S. military actions in Somalia and the region, such as the air attacks in 2007 and 2008, and includes special forces with the capacity for commando raids.

The United States has close military ties with Ethiopia and Kenya, both traditional enemies of Somalia. If Somali insurgents were implicated in future terrorist-style attacks on neighboring countries, the pressure for a U.S. military response would grow.

Even if U.S. forces are not involved in combat, multilateral security efforts could go wrong, indirectly implicating the United States. For example, Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by Somali police trained under a U.N.-sponsored program that started in 2007.

Reinforcing government security forces without mechanisms to ensure accountability can easily fuel justified Somali resentment of outsiders. Even if more U.S. engagement were seen as a way to fix such problems, it would be a mistake for U.S. “support” to edge into training or advising either government or multilateral forces on the ground in Somalia.

The crisis in Somalia well illustrates the fundamental alternatives for U.S. security policy toward the continent. Will a focus on anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency fuel conflict or reinforce oppressive regimes? Or will Washington give priority to building multilateral capacity to respond to Africa’s urgent security needs?

Counter-insurgency thinking has little relevance in solving the diverse conflicts that Africa faces in Darfur and Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or the Niger Delta. It is even more irrelevant to the structural problems Africa shares with the rest of the world, such as poverty, global warming, pandemic disease and violence against women.

The election of a son of Africa to the U.S. presidency has raised African hopes for a new era in U.S. engagement with Africa. When Barack Obama makes his first visit as president to sub-Saharan Africa in July, he will be greeted with excitement and high expectations.

If his administration is to meet those expectations, both Washington and African states must reject counterproductive military options. Instead, they must take on the far broader goal of ensuring inclusive human security. That requires decisive steps to end openly violent conflicts. But it also demands the will and resources to meet needs in health and education, create jobs and foster accountable governments.

These are formidable challenges, but Africans are eager for change. Americans should insist that our government first do no harm. 


Daniel Volman and William Minter, “Making Peace or Fueling War in Africa,” Foreign Policy in Focus, March 13, 2009
Human Rights Watch on Somalia
Refugees International on Somalia

William Minter is the editor of AfricaFocus Bulletin, an independent electronic publication on African issues. His most recent book, co-edited with Gail Hovey and Charles Cobb, Jr., is No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000 (Africa World Press, 2007).

Daniel Volman is the director of the African Security Research Project in Washington, D.C., and a member of the board of directors of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars.