So here we are, sixteen years on, and we once again have a major crisis of governance, civil chaos, and human suffering in Somalia; an international “community” that’s completely incapable of responding effectively; and a presidential transition here in Washington DC that complicates matters even further.
Maybe Somalia and its woes should stand– alongside Iraq, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and various other deeply troubled US projects– as a tragic monument to the mistakes Washington made during the years it wielded unrivaled power in the international system.
Somalia can also stand alongside those other projects as testimony to the failure of the US’s reliance on military means to address what are all, at heart, deeply political problems.
So here we are, sixteen years on.
Time for some lesson-learning, perhaps?
… This time around, we have the rapid unraveling of the US-backed political system in Somalia that was put in place by the bayonets of the Ethiopian army units that invaded the country almost exactly two years ago, at the behest of (and with much support from) Washington.
I’d love to know more about the decisionmaking of the Ethiopian regime, which recently announced it would be ending its (US-backed) occupation of Somalia. That occupation did win some backing from the African Union, which also deployed some token forces alongside the Ethiopians. It’s not certain if, as the Ethiopians withdraw, the AU forces will remain there. That seems doubtful… Meanwhile, the Islamic Courts Union, which had extended some valuable forms of unified control over much of the country prior to the Ethiopian invasion but were dispersed and brutally repressed by the Ethiopians, have been largely replaced by a younger generation of Islamist “shabab” (young men) who seem to be more hardline than the ICU.
The chief Ethiopian/US proxy in Somalia has been “President” Abullahi Yusuf, installed after the Ethiopian invasion. He and his backers have always been adamant, until now, that they would not negotiate in any way at all with the Somali Islamists. But the Prime Minister, Nur Hassan Hussein, has been more inclined to negotiate with the Islamists and other opposition forces. He and parliament opened impeachment proceedings against Yusuf yesterday.
Yusuf’s base of support has also been considerably weakened by two other developments: Big neighbor Kenya yesterday withdrew its support, calling him an “obstacle to peace.” And big demonstrations were reported in favor of PM Nur in Mogadishu and neighboring areas.
So it definitely looks as if Yusuf’s days are numbered. I hope Nur Hassan Hussein has the political smarts that will be needed to negotiate an internal political settlement in the country, because it seems there is absolutely no outside force capable of doing so.
On Tuesday, Condi Rice asked UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki-Moon to send UN peacekeepers to Somalia. Ban responded (not unreasonably) that (1) there was no peace to keep, and (2) none of the 50 countries he had asked, had agreed to commit any troops to this. So he looks incapable of pulling Pres. Bush’s chestnuts out of the Somali fire on this occasion.
Meanwhile, the main way the chaos in Somalia has been impinging on the international community in recent weeks has been through the spreading of the lawlessness on the country’s land into– and sometimes far beyond– its coastal waters.
International cruise ships filled with fun-loving Australians have been threatened! Supertankers carrying Saudi crude to the gas-guzzlers of North America have been threatened!
Notice that those incidents of piracy– few of which have been fatal to the people on the targeted ships– have received a whole lot more attention in the western media than the continuing, mega-lethal agonies of the people of Somalia.
The Somali “pirates” say they started their actions against international shipping after they became fed up with international vessels using their country’s waters to engage in illegal fishing and illegal trash-dumping. Quite possibly so… since of course, Somalia has no governmental coastal protection force capable of policing its long and fish-rich coastline.
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council did finally get around to doing something regarding Somalia. It passed Resolution 1851, which authorizes nations to use force to engage in,
- (Article 2)… seizure and disposition of boats, vessels, arms and other related equipment used in the commission of piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia, or for which there are reasonable grounds for suspecting such use…
Once these “suspicious” boats and vessels have been seized, the resolution apparently allows the seizers, or other countries with which they have agreements, to hold and try the accused pirates, “provided that the advance consent of the [Somali Transitional federal Government] is obtained for the exercise of third state jurisdiction by shipriders in Somali territorial waters… ”
It all sounds like an organizational and jurisdictional nightmare. Not helped when the US State Department declared yesterday, that it considers that resolution 1851
- “authorizes states cooperating with the Somali Transitional Federal Government to extend counter-piracy efforts to include potential operations in Somali territorial land and air space, to suppress acts of piracy and armed robbery at sea.”
So can we now expect to see US airpower being deployed against Islamists or others in Somalia, under the (in practice, hard-to-investigate) pretext that these targets are somehow connected with “piracy”?
The next few weeks will be important ones for the people of Somalia. And for the international “system” as a whole. The power projection capabilities of the US military are still hopelessly over-stretched, so it seems unlikely that the Pentagon’s planners will have the stomach for any particularly sustained campaign of attack against Somalia, under any pretext. Ships from numerous national navies are meanwhile steaming toward the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast, to contribute to the anti-piracy efforts. The contributing navies include various European navies, the Indian navy, the Russian navy and probably also– playing for the first time ever a potentially combat-ready role in these waters– China’s navy.
Xinahua reported yesterday that,
- Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei confirmed that the government is “seriously considering sending naval ships” to the waters in the near future when speaking at a ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council on Somali piracy in New York on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, btw, a Chinese shipping boat that came under threat from the Somali pirates was rescued by members of other unidentified navies in the Gulf of Aden. That was, I think the fifth or sixth Chinese boat to have been targeted there.
A Chinese anti-pirate naval deployment to the East African coast will be the first deployment of a combat-ready force to the continent since the truly massive armadas the Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He took to Africa in the 1420s. As I said, interesting times we’re living in.