Why the US supports the warlords.
Author's note: I had originally planned on writing a New Year's column, but some computer problems cropped up and weren't resolved in time for our deadline. Heck, I could use a break anyway. So, to all my readers, Happy New Year, and have a safe one. I'll be back on Wednesday – and keep watching our blog. I'll be posting regularly.
In our Orwellian age, no one is surprised when American foreign policy takes a U-turn, and, suddenly, we are at war with Eastasia – because, you see, we have always been at war with Eastasia. Yet even the most jaded observers are bound to raise an eyebrow over our embrace of the Somalian warlords, whose disarmament and capture was our announced goal the last time we intervened. That failed effort, you’ll recall, was dubbed "Operation Restore Hope."
Now we are back, albeit semi-covertly – using Ethiopia, a major recipient of American arms and technical support, as our proxy – in a new project that ought to be named Operation Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. In the post-9/11 Bizarro World alternate universe that our leaders and policymakers seem to have slipped into, the Bad Guys have become the Good Guys, and the formerly fiendish Somalian warlords are now part of the "anti-terrorism coalition" that the U.S. is assembling in the region.
A little history: The failed UN/U.S. intervention of 1993 led directly to the triumph of the warlords, who plundered, raped, and murdered their way through the streets of Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, and reduced the country to Mad Max territory. In response, an "Islamic courts" movement sprang up to impose some sort of cohesion on a rapidly disintegrating social order. The business community and public opinion rallied behind these courts, which were and are all that stand between civilization and savagery in Somalia.
As I’ve pointed out before, the long history of U.S. intervention in Somalia is a veritable case study of how and why American foreign policy always manages to generate the deadliest, most horrific "blowback," as the intelligence professionals put it. Blowback, a concept exhaustively explored in Chalmers Johnson’s classic book of the same title, means the unintended consequences of our bumbling, culturally tone-deaf, invariably unsuccessful efforts to manipulate local proxies to maximize our alleged national interests. In the 1990s, the Americans intervened in the name of "humanitarianism," against the warlords; in the new millennium, we have tossed aside humanitarian concerns in favor of the ruthless pursuit of "terrorists," real or imagined. The former "warlords" hunted by U.S. troops and blamed for Somalia’s shocking degeneration into pure chaos are now aided and abetted by the Americans and their Ethiopian cohorts.
This latest American turnabout – flooding Somalian warlords with money and arms – came about largely as the result of an imaginary confrontation between U.S. officials and supposed "terrorists." It happened a year ago, when U.S. government personnel investigating possible terrorist infiltration of Somalia landed at a makeshift airport just outside Mogadishu. No sooner had their plane set down uneasily on the tarmac than they heard shooting, and, assuming they were under fire, beat an unceremonious retreat. As far as the U.S. government was concerned, this was clearly an ambush, pulled off by terrorist elements possibly associated with al-Qaeda.
In reality, however, the Americans had stumbled into a conflict involving two rival clans, one of which controlled the airport, and the other which had recently purchased a large tract of land bordering the road to the airport. The former were outraged that this purchase would cut into their very profitable extortion and protection racket, and that their control over the heavy road traffic would be challenged. This led to an escalating series of threats and counter-threats, eventually exploding, on January 13, 2006, into open violence just as the American visitors touched down.
The protagonists in this dispute were characterized by the Washington Post as follows:
"Abukar Omar Adan was a devoutly Islamic and heavily armed clan elder with ties to the strict neighborhood religious courts that had brought a semblance of order to a city without a government.
His rival, Bashir Raghe, was a brash, younger man who had been a waste contractor with the U.S. military forces in Mogadishu before the United States pulled out."
Guess which one is the U.S. proxy.
No, it’s not the bourgeois businessman and city father whose stature in the community as a force for order advertises him as the natural and only logical choice – it’s Raghe, the street punk and gang leader, who, together with his fellow killers, has reduced Somalia to a kind of living hell.
When the warlords were driven out, the U.S. resorted to its ally in Addis Ababa to return its gangster-proxies to power. Washington has openly signaled its support for the Ethiopian invasion, which is shortly about to be billed as a "liberation" and a great "victory" in the "war on terrorism." The illusion can be maintained only so long as one squints one’s eyes sufficiently to blur the exact identity of these "liberators" – Somalian thugs and the army of Ethiopia’s dictator, "President" Meles Zenawi.
A former pro-Albania communist and leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, comrade Zenawi morphed into George W. Bush’s staunchest ally in the Horn of Africa. U.S. military aid increased by leaps and bounds. Zenawi’s trajectory parallels Somalia’s Mohamed Siad Barre, the former Soviet client and avowed Marxist, who seized power in 1969, immediately became a Soviet client, and eventually led his Somalian Socialist Revolutionary Party into a military and political alliance with the U.S. (The Soviets had championed Barre's Ethiopian arch-enemies in the ongoing dispute over the Ogaden region.) One of Africa’s most brutal despots, Barre enjoyed Washington’s full support right up until he was driven from the country, in 1991, by numerous local uprisings.
Zenawi is a budding Barre. In the summer of 2005, his U.S.-trained-and-equipped army fired on student protesters who objected to the blatant rigging of the recent election: over 20 were killed, and many wounded. This same army has now turned its guns on the Somalian people, violated Somalian sovereignty, and set up a puppet Somalian "government" that virtually no one in Somalia recognizes –again, with full American support.
Our complete misunderstanding of Somalia, its culture and unique politics, has led us into the trap of making decisions based on ideological constructs rather than anything related to the facts on the ground. The blundering into a local clan dispute and mistaking it for an armed attack on U.S. interests is emblematic of the problem: in the end, it seems, it’s always about us. A foreign policy founded in the spirit of hubris, and based on pretensions to "global hegemony," is inevitably blinded by a disabling narcissism.
That is what’s really frightening about U.S. foreign policy and the decision-makers who have such an adverse impact on the lives of people around the world. These guys are wandering around in the dark, utterly clueless: i.e. they’re typical government employees.
Policy is made not only with imperfect knowledge but with a complete disdain for knowledge, as such. That’s for the "reality-based community," as one White House advisor put it to Ron Suskind – those vulgar empiricists who insist that American policy must have some anchor in factual knowledge, as opposed to the neo-Trotskyite wet-dreams of various neoconservative gurus and White House speechwriters.
This anti-realist methodology is precisely what lured us into Iraq. In the case of Somalia, yet another quagmire beckons with its siren song of "fighting terrorism." How long before Ethiopia requires the presence of U.S. "advisors" – in addition to those already there – can probably be measured by the time it takes to post this piece. No doubt U.S. "emergency" aid to Ethiopia is being rushed to Zenawi even as I write, and you can bet we won’t hear much protest anywhere. Certainly not from most Democrats in Congress. Anyone who doubts that the U.S. is acting out of motives other than those that are proclaimed will immediately be smeared as an enabler if not outright supporter of "terrorism." Congress hasn’t got the gumption to cut off aid to the death squad "government" of "liberated" Iraq – and I doubt they’ll deprive murdering dictator Zenawi of his blood money as compensation for their cowardice.
I would love it, however, if I were to be proved mistaken, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
The Islamic courts movement was a logical response to the condition of Somalian society, and the complete absence of any law enforcement whatsoever. For the Americans to hold up this movement as proof that "terrorism" has taken power in Somalia is the best evidence that, as Michael Scheuer puts it, the U.S. government is Osama bin Laden’s one "indispensable ally." If al-Qaeda is credited with reversing the threat of a complete social breakdown in Somalia, and the gangster warlords we once held responsible for the country’s torment, in league with a foreign invader, is held up as the only alternative, then surely the terrorist leader is smiling somewhere in a deep dark cave, rubbing his hands together and chortling at his extraordinary good fortune.