Somalia: The Deadly Enigma


July 25, 2010:  Fighting in Mogadishu has left over 300 dead and wounded in the last week. Al Shabaab is determined to take control of the entire city, but is stymied by the 6,000 AU (African Union) peacekeepers. Al Shabaab has a temporary advantage in that its leaders are fanatics and use lethal force to deal with internal disputes. Long term, this creates more determined foes within Somalia. This pattern played itself out in Afghanistan during the 1990s, even to the extent that the Taliban, like al Shabaab, used a unit of al Qaeda gunmen to administer the more grisly discipline on disobeying locals. To Somalis, the al Qaeda are just another bunch of troublesome foreigners. The big advantage of al Shabaab is that their leaders are less corrupt, and get more out of the cash they receive from Iran and Islamic "charities," plus the bribes extorted from aid organizations.

AU (African Union) leaders are meeting in a Uganda resort for a scheduled conference. Security is higher than usual because of the recent Islamic terror bombing in the capital. Naturally, the big topic is Somalia, and Uganda's call for more nations to send troops to Somalia. Guinea has already pledged a battalion (800-1,000 troops). The Guinean battalion, plus another 2,000 troops Uganda has offered to send, could bring the peacekeeping force up to 9,000 by next month. Uganda is waiting for the AU to approve more aggressive "peacekeeping." This may happen in the next week.

But AU nations want more involvement from the West. U.S. and European nations will train and equip AU peacekeepers, but refuse to send their own troops. The problem is that the Somalis are a nasty and unreliable lot, at least according to their black African neighbors. The Somalis are aggressive and violent, and although they look like black Africans, they consider themselves Arabs, and display the disdain for blacks so typical of Arabs. AU leaders can understand many Somalis being angry at peacekeepers, and calling them "foreign invaders." The Somalis, in particular, are touchy about foreign invaders, partly because Somalis have been invading their neighbors for centuries and know what kind of reaction such incursions tend to create. Thus there is no "Somali Empire." The Somalis prefer to raid their neighbors, steal what they can, and go home. Now the Somalis are invading each other, with the nation split into four factions (Somaliland in the northwest, Puntland in the north, the Transitional Government in the center and al Shabaab in the south). These factions are each composed of more clan and warlord militias, which create still more internal strife. The Transitional Government is the weakest alliance, because its component clans and warlords are the most divided. The other three factions also have these, often violent, disagreements, but not to the extent of the Transitional Government crew. The U.S. has showered the Transitional Government with millions in economic and military aid, only to see most of the aid stolen. The thousands of Somalis given military training by Western instructors, are of little use to the Transitional Government because of the corruption (Transitional Government leaders stealing money meant for food, equipment and payroll.) Somalis love to talk about "Somalia", but won't work together to make it happen. The guiding principle is to grab all you can for yourself and your family or clan. The U.S. is proposing that future aid come with more strings (American troops and officials handling the money). This sort of thing is opposed by Somali leaders (less opportunity to steal), and believed (by some Americans) to be acceptable to most Somalis. Getting senior American officials to sign off on this is difficult, as it does put more Americans at risk of being killed or kidnapped.

Al Shabaab knows how to play the media, and their fellow Somalis. Al Shabaab has been using its mortars to shell AU camps in Mogadishu. Al Shabaab does this from residential areas, knowing that the AU may not fire back, to avoid civilian casualties. But sometimes the AU does fire back anyway, and al Shabaab portrays that as unwarranted violence by invading foreign troops against innocent Somalis. That's what most Somalis want to hear, and it makes al Shabaab more popular. Al Shabaab needs that, because the Islamic radical group simultaneously makes itself unpopular by using violence to impose an stricter Islamic lifestyle on Somalis. Video, sports and music are all banned, and hundreds of Somalis have been killed or wounded for resisting these rules.

Somalia has long been gangster central, and this caused local Arab states to invade and station troops in coastal fortresses to contain the criminal behavior. Somali pirates are also an ancient problem. European nations (Britain, France and Italy) replaced the Arab troops in Somalia during the late 19th century. The Europeans soon discovered that the Somalis are relentless fighters, and that peace in Somalia is pretty violent. Thus there was not a lot of economic investment, and the Europeans were glad to be out of the place in 1960. Left to their own devices, the Somalis reverted to fighting each other and invading neighbors (particularly Ethiopia). Somalia fell apart by 1990 and has been a playground for warlords and rapacious young men with guns ever since.

AU nations have been coping with this sort of thing for centuries, and don't see any easy solution. Peacekeeping might settle things down, but would probably have to go on indefinitely, with the Somalis continuing to fight. The West wants to prevent Somalia from being a refuge for pirates and Islamic terrorists. The AU is telling the West that, if they want Somalia pacified, the West will have to contribute more, including some troops. This demand is partly psychological ("we don't want to do the white man's dirty work") and partly practical (the Western troops are much better trained and equipped, especially for commando, intel and logistics work).  

The two hospitals in Mogadishu report that they have treated 300-600 casualties a month since April. Many minor casualties never reach the hospital. The hospitals, who treat everyone, are having increasing problems with some factions refusing to honor that, and trying to enter to kill wounded enemies.

Puntland, like Kenya, is having problems with Somali refugees. The refugee camps tend to fill up with women and children and elderly or infirm men. This eventually attracts young, armed, men, who demand food and other aid from the relief workers running the camp. This will turn the camp into a base for one faction or another, unless local police (or militias acting as such) can provide security. Puntland doesn't want these problems, and is sending hundreds of refugees from the south, back to where they came from. Unless refugees convince Puntland authorities that they will be no trouble, they are forced back at gunpoint.

Kenya is encountering more problems with armed Somalis crossing the border, to get to the refugee camps where their kin live. Sometimes the gunmen just want to visit, but more often they are using the camps as a safe (from their Somali enemies, most of the time) base. The Somali gunmen will usually back off if they encounter a Kenyan border patrol, but increasingly the Somalis will open fire, seeking to force the patrol to retreat so the Somalis can continue into Kenya. The camps themselves, especially those in Somalia, are increasingly threadbare. The inability of anyone to keep the Somali gunmen from dominating the camps, and  stealing a lot of the aid, has turned off donors. Thus this year, donors have only come up with about half the aid needed. Many donors simply don't want to see their aid stolen by armed factions, and send their charity elsewhere.

The pirates up north aren't doing so well. Only one ship has been taken so far this month, and only one last month. However, the Somali pirates have taken 28 ships so far this year, compared to 31 for all of last year. The pirates are currently holding fifteen ships and about 350 crew. The anti piracy forces have warned that the pirates may turn their efforts to the Red Sea, since the Gulf of Aden and the high seas off eastern Somalia are now well patrolled.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close