Americans don't spend much time thinking about Somalia. And what time we do spend has in recent months been focused on somewhat amused accounts of the uptick in pirate activity off the Somali coast. But the piracy is but a symptom of the larger problem of lawlessness and anarchy in Somalia. To Americans who have paid no attention to East Africa in the time between the departure of U.S. forces from Somalia in 1995 and the recent spate of pirate attacks, this situation may appear merely endemic to the region. But it's not. The Somali situation was, in many ways, improving as of two years ago. At which point the Bush administration initiated a new adventure that, like most Bush administration deeds, was ill-conceived and worked out poorly. In this case, it destroyed the country, has been responsible for the deaths of untold thousands of people, has created the pirate problem, and is breeding a new generation of anti-American jihadists.
And nobody in the United States seems to have noticed.
In part, this is because Somalia is an obscure corner of the world. And in part it's because the crucial events took place almost exactly two years ago -- during the Christmas season when most journalists were on vacation and most people weren't following the news.
Two years ago, most of Somalia was under the control of a militia called the Islamic Courts Union. This was, as the name suggests, an Islamist movement that arose out of sharia courts that had begun to provide some measure of local judicial authority amid Somalia's anarchy. Eventually, the ICU acquired armed forces and was able to seize control of the capital city, Mogadishu, and begin expanding its control over broader and broader swaths of the country. The ICU was not made up of nice people, and it didn't have a model of governance that was going to win any human-rights awards. What's more, one of the forces it was fighting against was the de jure government, the so-called Transitional Federal Government, a ragtag and essentially powerless group that had been put together some years prior under United Nations auspices. But the ICU did manage to bring a degree of actual law and order to the territories it supervised, and it wasn't trying to pick any fights with the United States. It was, in short, an improvement over the previous 15 years or so of anarchy.
But during the middle of the decade, the United States military had been building increasingly close ties with Ethiopia, hoping to turn that country into our key regional proxy. And Ethiopia and Somalia have traditionally been rivals. As the TFG got weaker, it also drew closer to Ethiopia. And when ICU forces attacked the TFG's holdout in the south central city of Baidoa on Dec. 20, Ethiopian forces came to the TFG's rescue. By Dec. 24 -- Christmas Eve -- Ethiopian forces announced that they were staging a counterattack aimed at routing the ICU. The United States supported the operation, both with intelligence and some direct special-forces engagement and also diplomatically, which is crucially important since U.S. military assistance was how Ethiopia built their best-in-the-region military force. Before New Year's Eve, Ethiopians were in control of Mogadishu and began an occupation of the country in the name of the TFG.
To those of us who were both paying attention and chastened by the misadventure in Iraq, this looked like a recipe for disaster. Here was a largely Christian country (Ethopia), operating with the support of the United States, trying to occupy a largely Islamic country (Somalia) whose population has historically been at odds with the former. The inevitable results would be insurgency, death, destruction, anarchy, and the development of a more dangerous strain of Islamism as the United States sent the message that we were the enemy of all Somali Islamists whether or not they had any quarrel with us.
Some conservatives took note of these events to engage in some of their usual short-sighted bloody-mindedness. James Robbins observed in National Review that “Ethiopia is in it to win, nice to see a country in the developing world (or anywhere for that matter) that can take care of business." TNR‘s James Kirchick hailed the Ethiopian invasion as just and the U.S. participation, a worthy counterterrorism strategy.
Of course what actually happened was a downward spiral of insurgency, violence, criminality, piracy, death, destruction, and humanitarian tragedy. Over the summer, the U.N. decided the humanitarian situation was "worse than Darfur." Somalia has the world's highest rate of malnutrition. Because of the precarious security situation, it's extraordinarily difficult for humanitarian-aid organizations to operate. And because of the dismal record of foreign interventions in Somalia, no foreign countries are interested in intervening to stabilize things.
Of course the United States and the Bush administration are hardly the only blameworthy actors here. But we are blameworthy. We could have just minded our own business. But instead, in a fit of thoughtlessness, we initiated a policy that nobody in the States paid much attention to and that over a period of years has prompted massive human suffering around the world. And the Bush administration is continuing to make things worse in its final weeks in office. I can only hope that the incoming Obama administration will spend some time thinking about Somalia and learning not only specific policy lessons but also developing a sense of humility about the damage that can be done when the world's only superpower thrashes around carelessly.