Notes From the Margins…

Cameron’s awfully big Somali adventure

  • February 24, 2012
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Yesterday’s International Conference on Somalia was billed by the UK government as a turning point in the history of one of the most impoverished and war-torn nations on earth.   In his opening address to the conference David Cameron explained the purpose of the conference in the following terms:

‘In a country where there is no hope, chaos, violence and terrorism thrive. Pirates are disrupting vital trade routes and kidnapping tourists. Young minds are being poisoned by radicalism, breeding terrorism that is threatening the security of the whole world. If the rest of us just sit back and look on, we will pay a price for doing so.’

Cameron argued that

‘for two decades politicians in the West have too often dismissed the problems in Somalia as simply too difficult and too remote to deal with.  Engagement has been sporadic and half-hearted’.

He also told the conference

‘we are not here to impose solutions on a country from afar. Nor are we here to tell you, the Somali people, what to do. But rather, we”re here to get behind your efforts and help you to turn things around.’

Admirable and worthy sentiments, to be sure.  But similar declarations were once made in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and they certainly cannot be taken at face value in the case of Somalia.   Yesterday’s  conference was preceded  by upbeat assessments from the UK government and the British media on the recent military reversals inflicted on the al-Shabaab movement by African Union (AMISOM) troops, and the new stability in Mogadishu and other cities.

These upbeat reports invariably describe al-Shabaab as the main obstacle to peace and stability.   There is no doubt that al-Shabaab is a particularly grim and harsh  expression of political Islam,  and in the last two years I have met many Somalis who have testified to how brutal it is.

Nevertheless, almost totally absent from the conference’s ‘hopeful future’ narratives  is any recognition of the role that foreign interventions played in the violent mayhem that began with the Ethiopian invasion of 2006, and which was a direct contributing factor in the rise of the most extremist elements of al-Shabaab.

Contrary to Cameron’s suggestion that international engagement has been ‘sporadic and half-hearted’, the outside world has been very much engaged in Somalia in recent years, in ways that have been generally destructive and counter-productive.

In the aftermath of 9/11,  the Bush administration identified Somalia as a ‘breeding ground’ of terrorism because less than a dozen al-Qaeda militants were believed to be in the country.   The US therefore courted various predatory warlords linked to the corrupt Transitional Federal Government in an attempt to eliminate them, even though TFG/warlord rule was widely despised by many Somalis.

In 2006, a grassroots Islamist network acting under the rubric of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), succeeded in driving the warlords out of Mogadishu.  For the best part of a year, the ICU created a level of stability and security over large swathes of the country that had been absent for more than a decade and imposed  a harsh version of Sharia law.

During that time the ICU enjoyed widespread popular support, and the militantly Islamist youth wing al-Shabaab was only one of various components.   Through the darkened lens of the Bush administration however,  the ICU  was a monolithic ‘jihadist’ group with ‘linkages’ to al-Qaeda.

In July that year, the US encouraged and supported an invasion by Somalia’s historic enemy Ethiopia.    US Special Forces based in Djibouti provided direct military support in this invasion, attacking ‘foreign fighters and al Qaeda operatives’ as they attempted to flee the country.

The Ethiopian invasion sucked Somalia into a new vortex of violence, in which al-Shabaab emerged as the central component of a nation-wide insurgency against a  ‘Christian’ military invader.    In 2009  Ethiopia withdrew, and the Transitional Goverment was propped up by African Union troops,  In 2011 Ethiopian troops returned to Somalia.  That same year Kenyan troops also entered the country in retaliation for al-Shabaab cross-border incursions.

Ethiopian, Kenyan and African Union soldiers and al-Shabaab militants have all carried out atrocities and human rights abuses, including attacks on children.    And throughout these years, the US has continued to wage a ‘shadow war’ in Somalia which has been exclusively directed against al-Shabaab.

In two essential dispatches for The Nation, the ever-brilliant Jeremy Scahill has traced the sordid and destructive alliances between the US military and Somali warlords, and the covert operations conducted in Somalia by CIA/Special Forces operatives.

Scahill makes an irrefutable case that the growth of al-Shabaab – and the dominance of its most extremist elements – was not the result of ‘sporadic or half-hearted’ foreign engagement, but was in fact a direct consequence of such interventions.

In a new book  on Afghanistan, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn have described the Taliban as ‘an enemy we created’.   Something similar could be said about al-Shabaab, and the crude and simplistic formulations which transformed Somalia into another battlefield in the Global War on Terror, and  reduced the complexities of Somali politics into yet another fruitless confrontation with an enemy that – in western eyes at least – consisted of nothing but  ‘terrorists’, ‘jihadists’ and ‘al Qaeda’.

This month al-Shabaab formally declared itself to be in alliance with al-Qaeda, according to an Internet proclamation by Ayman al-Zawahiri.   That was not the case a few years ago, and it was not inevitable.  Nor is it irreversible.

In an  article in the journal Foreign Affairs earlier this month, two Somali analysts argued that stability in Somalia would be dependent on negotiations, and that al-Shabaab contains elements that are willing to do this.   There is no evidence from yesterday’s conference that any of these recommendations have been considered or acted upon.

On the contrary, the ‘new’ international focus on Somalia continues to be dominated by the blinkered security prism that characterised the Bush years.   If Somalia is ever to achieve the long-term stability that will enable it to emerge from the trauma of the last two decades, it will have to involve negotiations between all its clans and political factions, including al-Shabaab, or at least some elements of it.

Such a future depends on the widest possible involvement of Somali civil society in forging a new national consensus.   Yesterday’s conference paid some lip service to this outcome, but too many governments continue to pursue the military defeat of al-Shabaab as an essential pre-condition for achieving it.

This week it was revealed that the UK and other EU countries are contemplating air strikes against al-Shabaab ‘logistical hubs’.  The US is already carrying out drone attacks on al-Shabaab militants.  There is no doubt that al-Shabaab has overplayed its hand, but predictions of its defeat may prove to be premature, and UAVs and helicopter gunships are unlikely to produce new forms of ‘blowback’ both inside and outside the country.

For Somalia to stand a chance the guns must stop, and the talking must begin.   It is by no means clear whether yesterday’s conference will bring about that outcome, or whether it heralds a new era of neo-colonial intervention and another phase in Somalia’s ‘forever war.’



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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