Conversations on Somalia
New York Center for Conflict Dialogue
The Association of the Bar of the City of New York Committee on African Affairs
New York City
May 21, 2009
An Evaluation of U.S. Policy toward Somalia
Amb. David H. Shinn
Adjunct Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs
The George Washington University
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you this evening. I speak as an independent scholar; I no longer represent the U.S. government.
The history of U.S. relations with Somalia since the early 1970s has not always been a pretty one. I was the State Department desk officer for Somalia when Siad Barre seized power in a bloodless coup in 1969. The United Sates did not in those early years anticipate that Siad Barre would lead Somalia into such a complete dictatorship. Even as that happened, however, the United States had few reservations about establishing close relations with him during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
This was especially the case after the overthrow of pro-American Emperor Haile Selassie in neighboring Ethiopia by the pro-Soviet Mengistu Haile Mariam military regime. As Mengistu solidified relations with Moscow, U.S. relations with Ethiopia deteriorated significantly. Washington looked for another ally in the Horn of Africa and settled on Siad Barre's Somalia. Said Barre eventually became the recipient of large quantities of U.S. economic and military assistance. By the late 1980s, the United States became disenchanted with the Siad Barre government and ended the military assistance program.
U.S. Intervention in Somalia
Early in 1991, U.S. personnel hastily evacuated the embassy in Mogadishu as the city came under attack from opponents of Said Barre. The subsequent famine and humanitarian crisis in Somalia allowed the United States to show the positive side of its relations with Somalis. Beginning in 1992, it supported a major food assistance airlift out of Kenya. Near the end of the year, President George H.W. Bush was so concerned about the famine in Somalia that he authorized a military intervention led by the United States to open road corridors so that NGOs could feed starving people in central Somalia. This effort by the United States and other members of the international community succeeded, a fact that has long been forgotten. The international intervention led by the United States ended the Somali famine.
Unfortunately, the subsequent UN Mission known as UNOSOM, which had the complete involvement and support of the United States, allowed the humanitarian mission to develop into a manhunt for clan leader Mohammed Farah Aideed following a brutal attack by his militia on Pakistani peacekeepers early in 1993. The situation in Mogadishu quickly deteriorated. UNOSOM, the United States and Somali warlords all made serious mistakes that resulted in the October 1993 Blackhawk Down incident and a decision by President Clinton to pull all U.S. troops out of Somalia by March 1994. UNOSOM shut down a year later.
Political Abandonment of Somalia
To their credit, the United States and the international community continued to provide humanitarian assistance to Somalis. At the same time, they made an additional series of political missteps. Except for continuing the provision of humanitarian assistance, the United States essentially abandoned Somalia after the departure of its forces in 1994. Because of this lack of interest in Somalia, it also lost what little understanding it had of on-going developments in the country. The poor security situation in Mogadishu made it impossible to assign U.S. officials there. The U.S. embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, had responsibility for Somalia. Except for occasional visits to Somalia by someone from the embassy in Kenya, the United States relied almost solely on second or third hand reports about developments in the country.
Preoccupation with Counterterrorism
Following the 1998 bombings by al-Qaeda of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, U.S. intelligence personnel began to pay more attention to Somalia. Three persons (one each from Sudan, Kenya and the Comoro Islands) involved in those attacks were given sanctuary in Somalia by an extremist Islamic group. There was another brief, revival of U.S. interest in Somalia following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and the mistaken belief by some in Washington that the Taliban would move to Somalia. When this did not happen, interest in Somalia outside the counterintelligence community again disappeared. From this point until about the beginning of 2008, Somalia appeared on Washington's radar screen only in the context of a counterterrorism problem and, secondarily, as a country in need of humanitarian food aid.
The Rise of Political Islam in Somalia
Early in 2006, as the Islamic Courts extended their power in Mogadishu, the United States as part of its counterterrorism policy made the disastrous decision to support a group of discredited war lords in opposition to the Islamic Courts. The Islamic Courts prevailed over the warlords by the middle of 2006 and began to increase their authority throughout much of Somalia. Although they reestablished security in most of Somalia, a few Islamic Court leaders spoke of a jihad against Ethiopia and made, in the view of the United States, increasingly menacing remarks about their ultimate objectives.
Near the end of 2006, Ethiopia became deeply concerned about this turn of events and decided to intervene militarily. Although it is not clear that the United States gave Ethiopia a green light for this intervention, it certainly made no serious effort to prevent it, and most Somalis believe that the United States actually sponsored the intervention. To the surprise of no one who has followed events in the Horn of Africa for many years, Somalis highly resented the Ethiopian intervention, which soon became bogged down in the Mogadishu area. The United States compounded its complicity in this intervention by conducting five aerial attacks during 2007 and 2008 against suspected terrorists inside Somalia. Only one of these attacks appears to have accomplished its intended goal. On the other hand, the aerial attacks resulted in a significant increase in anti-American feeling among Somalis.
Getting U.S.-Somali Relations Back on Track
The Bush administration in its final year did give strong verbal support to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and seemed to realize that a military response would not achieve the desired outcome. At the beginning of 2009, it welcomed the new TFG leader, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, one of the Islamic Court leaders that it had earlier criticized, and agreed to work with him.
The Obama administration has continued to support President Ahmed's government while declaring that it is not the role of the United States to lead the Somali political process. Johnnie Carson, the new assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, has only recently taken up his position and begun to speak out on Somali issues. He publicly criticized continuing Eritrean military support for the extremist al-Shabaab organization and condemned the presence of foreign jihadis among the ranks of al-Shabaab. In response to recent press reports, Carson also ruled out deploying into Somalia U.S. troops assigned to a base in neighboring Djibouti. In testimony May 20 before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs, Carson called for "a comprehensive solution that provides stability, promotes reconciliation, economic opportunity and hope for the Somali people."
That brings U.S. policy up to the present; I will comment further on the current situation and respond to questions during the panel session.
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