TO MOST Americans, Somalia is the place where "Black Hawk Down" happened, or the place with the pictures of the starving African children, or, for some, the biblical land of Punt. (Scholars quibble about locating Punt.) Americans tend to confuse African countries with one another except when our soldiers are dying there, and the violence in Sudan, Uganda, Congo or Zimbabwe can seem indistinguishable. But the anarchy in Somalia, which straddles the strategic Horn of Africa, is in a class by itself.
For more than 16 years, Somalia has existed without the pretense of a central government, surviving largely on foreign aid and remittances from its overseas diaspora, the best and brightest young Somalis. With the fading of the seasonal rains in December, the Somalis are preparing once again to inflict their intra-clan squabbling on their neighbors. Meanwhile, the neighbors are preparing a proxy war, and they plan to fight one another to the last Somali.
Experts call Somalia a failed state. This is a sophism. Somalia was a failed state in 1990 under the last central government of the mildly insane Mohamed Siad Barre. Nowadays, one could call Somalia a space between countries. Or simply a feral nation. This is the place that perfected the practice of extorting cash from international aid organizations in return for allowing the aid groups the privilege of feeding other starving Somalis. (Gangsters R Us, with Third World panache.) When the United Nations tried to intervene and establish a central government in 1993 (an admittedly naive effort), the Somalis united just long enough to drive off the foreigners and resume their embrace of warlords and clans.
I was there in 1993, running covert operations in Mogadishu for the CIA when the U.N. effort was wrecked. President George H.W. Bush had sent the Marines into Somalia to feed the starving children, and President Clinton was attempting to install a Jeffersonian democracy in a medieval culture. The Clinton theory was that the U.N. would use its peacemaking powers to force the Somali factions into a political accord, and then peace would break out.
Unfortunately, nobody told the Somalis. They viewed the U.N. and the U.S. as foreign invaders bent on Christianizing their Muslim culture while destroying the power of the clans and warlords. This dispute spawned a series of attacks that cumulated in the Battle of Mogadishu between the U.S. Task Force Ranger and Somali clan fighters, as portrayed in the film "Black Hawk Down." After losing 17 elite troops to an African mob in a single night, Clinton lost all stomach for further "nation building" involving U.S. casualties, and the U.N. effort collapsed. After that, the world largely went back to ignoring the Somalis.
Now the Somalis are poised to insist that the international community tune back in while they commit an auto-da-fe on CNN. Somali Islamists, modeling themselves on the Taliban, have taken control of most of the country, driving the warlords out of the cities and into the bush. The internationally recognized Somali interim government (an effort by neighboring countries to get the clans and factions to agree to some sort of consensus government with which the world can interact) is surrounded in the provincial city of Baidoa, about 160 miles northwest of the capital. When the roads are dry enough to allow military operations, the Islamists will swiftly overwhelm the interim government unless outside help arrives at the last minute.
Already, a team of Al Qaeda-style suicide bombers have blasted Baidoa. The Islamists make no bones about their plans to install a fundamentalist government and to begin "rescuing" their brethren in neighboring countries (read all of East Africa) from the oppressive rule of the Christian Crusaders. Somalia's neighbors are bracing for a regional war, and the U.S. State Department says 10 countries are taking sides in some fashion. Ethiopia, which has a restive Muslim south and a history of being a target for Somali brigandage whenever the Somalis pause in their intra-clan feuding, is sending troops to back up the interim government and oppose the Islamists.
The Eritreans, led by an increasingly paranoid, sociopathic president, are the sworn blood enemies of the Ethiopians. Seeing a chance to weaken their bigger neighbor, they are flying in arms and instructors to the Islamists.
Across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi fundamentalists see the Christian Ethiopians embarking on a "crusade" to crush Islam. In response, they are providing cash through Wahhabi charities to their Islamic comrades, frightening and infuriating Washington.
Kenya's kleptocratic government, overwhelmed by an influx of refugees, is wringing its hands while endless talks take place in Nairobi hotels between irrelevant Somali politicians and clueless U.N. diplomats in search of a peace plan. The Islamists want no part of the talks; they are winning.
When the big, ugly regional war breaks out, the Islamists, with the help of Eritrean advisors, are likely to hold their own. Now add in your odd Somali warlord, drug-crazed clan gunmen and the Somali history of atrocities and you have a real mess in the Horn of Africa. Fighting will probably spill into Kenya, and destitute refugees will surge across East Africa. Bottom line: It is likely by this time next year that the Horn of Africa will host its own little Taliban wannabe, more or less in control of Somalia and at war with its neighbors. Along the way, there will be a lot of dead people and suffering refugees.
Although this is far away, and may not happen to anyone you know personally, it is going to become a concern of the U.S. soon. An Islamic fundamentalist haven on the Horn of Africa is more than a tragedy for the long-suffering Africans; it is a threat to the oil routes that fuel the West and pass just offshore. Recent domestic terrorist attacks have already shaken the House of Saud's iron grip on its population; a sanctuary where its fundamentalist enemies can regroup only a few hours across the Red Sea would be a dagger at its heart.
A terrorist Somalia would be difficult to contain. Most African governments have little ability to find, let alone effectively police, their own borders. If the Islamic fundamentalists establish a haven in Somalia, they could infiltrate or threaten the many weak secular governments in surrounding countries.
It simply is not prudent to ignore what is going on in Somalia, but everyone agrees the last thing the U.S. wants now is to embark on another adventure in East Africa. The only practical option is to interest the Islamists in talking. Right now, they do not need to talk; they are getting everything they want on the battlefield. If they suffer a military setback, talk may look more appealing.
To improve the odds of such an Islamist setback, the U.S. should provide training and equipment to Somalia's neighbors. Frankly, the track record is poor; in the past, most military aid has been used to suppress domestic critics rather than fight foreign enemies. And it's certainly true that the one thing Africa does not need is more guns. But it looks like it's getting them anyway, according to a November U.N. report on weapons smuggling.
Washington should also lean hard on the government of Saudi Arabia to crack down on the Wahhabi charity money that fuels the Somali Islamist war machine. If the Saudis don't want those petrodollars coming back at them in a few years as RPGs fired by antiroyalist fundamentalists based in Somalia, it behooves them to overcome the reservations they have shown about squeezing fellow Wahhabists.
However, even our best efforts will not stop a long, bloody conflict. Get ready for more pictures of starving African babies. Film at 11, death and suffering around the clock.