Pirates, clerics, warlords and the chaos in Somalia

    Photo of a road in Somalia by guuleed on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons

    For fifteen years, chaos has plagued the Horn of Africa. Equipped with speedboats and rocket launchers, pirates roam the Indian Ocean in search of fortune. On land, radicals set off improvised explosive devices. Aid workers are assassinated and dragged through the center of the city. At a rally in a soccer stadium, children and parents alike bear Soviet-era rifles and yell “Allahu Akbar”: God is great. Welcome to Somalia.

    Somalia is the most pressing humanitarian and security crisis in the world. Somalia is plagued by the human suffering of Darfur and the terrorism of Afghanistan. The global community, led by the United States, must act with vigor to help repair Somalia.

    Psst… the bright one is Somalia.

    Somalia is no longer a state. It has no national army. It has no permanent governmental authority. The warlords govern localities, corruptly and violently improvising to make ends meet and nearly all foreign workers have fled the country after being targeted for assassination. The Somalis who remain are left with few options. Some have resorted to violence; others have tried theft; still others have embraced religion and joined the Union of Islamic Courts. Today’s Somalia is a conglomeration of pirates, warlords, Islamists (members of the Islamic Courts) and a few technocrats — a toxic mixture.

    Somali pirates number in the thousands. They have attacked over fifty vessels in the past year, raking in millions in ransom money. They are an organized network with a unified mission and an official spokesperson. Think of us like a coast guard, he has said.

    Most recently, the pirates spotted, attacked, and occupied a Ukrainian ship carrying $30 million worth of military equipment. The Somali pirates now possess a reservoir of tanks, grenade launchers and ammunition. However, it is hard to imagine how they will keep the 80,000 lb. tanks, for the pirates normally unload their booty with dinghy boats. Either way, the pirates aren’t stuck on details. They don’t want the weapons on the ship; they only want money. In fact, the pirates admit that the sea of weapons saturating Somalia is chiefly responsible for Somalis’ suffering over the past decade-and-a-half.

    In a way, Somalia is in the throes of a never-ending civil war. Until a few years ago, Somalia was divided among warlords who led gangs that operated ad hoc local governments fueled by corruption and patronage. As the warlords struggled for power, an Islamist movement, the Union of Islamic Courts, grew to challenge the corrupt establishment in a new civil war.

    The Islamists were quickly framed as a terrorist threat. The United States backed the warlords and allegedly sent them support through the CIA. In an encouraging testament to the power of our CIA, the warlords lost and the Islamists took over Mogadishu, the former capital. For several months, as the Islamists imposed a form of Shari’a law, Somalia was reasonably stable.

    But that was not enough for the United States or Ethiopia. The United States was prepared to prosecute its War on Terror and Ethiopia was unprepared to deal with an Islamist neighbor. The United States supported an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. The Ethiopians displaced the Islamists from power and occupied the country.

    The Ethiopians continue to occupy Somalia and support the transitional government comprised largely of “former” warlords. In response, the Islamists have mounted an insurgent and assassination campaign to unseat the current government. They have assassinated foreign aid workers and officials from the Transitional Federal Government.

    The United States has failed multiple times to stabilize Somalia. What merits another intervention, particularly when the country is more chaotic than ever?

    Geographically, Somalia would be a perfect node for terrorism. Somali pirates, funded by terrorist networks, could seize oil tankers traveling through the Strait of Hormuz. With the proper support, Somali pirates could escalate an insurgent sea war that sends world oil prices skyrocketing. Somalia, like Afghanistan, could fast become a breeding ground of, and harbor for, international terrorism.

    This is not to advocate a third leg of the war against terrorism. We cannot afford the financial cost and should not stomach the human cost of a third international war. However, we must do something about Somalia to promote stability and alleviate suffering.

    First, the United States should convince the Ethiopian President, Meles Zenawi, to withdraw Ethiopian forces to the border between Ethiopia and Somalia. To ensure his compliance, we can offer Zenawi increased humanitarian aid as a carrot and reduced military aid as a stick.

    An Ethiopian withdrawal would leave the Islamist forces to fight the warlords. Though both are bad guys, the Islamists are more likely to bring stability. Their last stint in power was the only period of stability in Mogadishu since the first Bush Presidency. Without Ethiopian opposition, the Islamists would likely win the ensuing war and again control Mogadishu, the former capital.

    Before the Islamists can try to unseat the transitional government, the African Union should organize a joint summit with the Arab League (Somalia is a member of both) to orchestrate a power-sharing agreement between the technocrats in the transitional government and the Islamists. The few Somali technocrats are the only hope for a real Somali government. Warlords in the transitional government should opt into a reconciliation process or face exile.

    If the power-sharing agreement succeeds, the United States should supply, with matching funds from the international community, $100 million for infrastructure reconstruction and secular education. The UN Security Council should continue to closely monitor the flow of money and arms to the new government, containing it from international terrorist influence.

    Warlords amenable to reconciliation should be integrated into the new governmental system at the community level. Clan leaders should be allowed to continue overseeing local police forces, but report to a technocratic Interior Minister.

    Yes, I am ultimately proposing another civil war, another political settlement and an Islamist government supported by American dollars that we currently do not have. It sounds crazy. It sounds tedious. It is both. The alternative is to do nothing and hope that the chaotic gridlock will somehow subside.

    What do we lose by lobbying to have Zenawi withdraw Ethiopian troops? What do we lose by paying for infrastructure programs that cost less than .1% of our annual budget deficit? Somalia is subsumed by utter catastrophe and is headed for worse. The potential benefits include one less terrorist haven and millions more Somali children at peace for the first time.

    As long as it is calibrated and limited, intervention will not burden Americans. Inshallah, it will help repair Somalia.


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