Somalia: Quicksand, or Vital Interests?

The debate over Somalia should not be a proxy for partisan politics

Matthew Yglesias recently argued at The American Prospect:

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.

This is almost certainly an exaggeration—The New York Times was writing almost weekly dispatches from the country and about Somali politics; widely-read academic bloggers such as Foreign Policy’s Daniel Drezner were writing at length about the invasion and aftermath; think tanks were writing love letters to an anarchy they won’t visit for fear of their lives; and independent operations like Bill Roggio’s Long War Journal were covering the conflict and its implications since before the invasion. Yglesias’s assertion that the invasion was an ignored “adventure” by the Bush administration is almost laughably false, yet it seems to form one of the two pillars of his critique of the conflict.

Yglesias’ other argument about the Somali conflict was that the U.S. picked the wrong side. Whether the Islamic Courts Union, a hardline Islamist movement that nearly conquered Somalia in late 2006, was a legitimate group is a more complex argument, one with which Bill Roggio certainly disagrees. But unpacking what the conflict might really be about requires a step back from a typical left-right divide, in which Bush is either the delirious warmonger boxing at Islamist shadows or the noble defender of all that is good and radical Islam’s worst enemy.

David Axe has spent a lot of time reporting from both inside Somalia and from neighboring Kenya. In 2007, he reported that the U.S. was displaying some strategic confusion over who exactly was the “enemy,” and that it probably didn’t have sufficient intelligence to determine which sites to attack from the air (the U.S. never committed ground troops in any noticeable way). More recently, he has reported that Somalia actually faces a bigger threat from piracy interrupting food aid than from the rise of extremist Islamic political movements.

In this month’s Atlantic, Eliza Griswold writes that the situation is actually far more complex than either “side” seems to admit—it’s neither a simple case of al Qaeda-loving terrorists on the warpath nor of the U.S. mistakenly pursuing one interest at the fatal expense of another. Indeed, Griswold notes that many of the Islamist movement leaders are full American citizens, and are conversant in American culture. Almost as importantly, al Qaeda, despite its bluster, never found a very welcoming home in Somalia (in The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright relates that the few operatives in Mogadishu during the Black Hawk Down incident were terrified and ran away, while still claiming responsibility for the death of eighteen U.S. servicemen).

Indeed, any realistic take on the problems facing Somalia must consider more than just the American perspective. Somalia plays host to Islamists and at least one known al Qaeda terrorist. Somalia is the homebase of a massive and lucrative piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Somalia does not have a functioning central government, and probably won’t for a long time. But none of this is America’s fault—and examining the country only in terms America seems to care about will badly miss the point. One angle frequently ignored in the heated sniping over the piracy is the role of fishing rights. While the pirates have scored something in the range of $30 million in ransom this year, they’ve lost an estimated $300 million in fishing revenue due to poachers from all over the globe.

Seen in the context of jealously guarding Somalia’s territorial waters, the pirates seem more like a coast guard than a group of brigands. They are clearly not as benevolent as, say, the U.S. Coast Guard—but then again, there is no real Somali military that could have created one. Piracy is a spontaneous activity, and is driven by many factors beyond ideology and even greed. The same goes for the factional fighting, which can just as often be about Ethiopia’s unwelcome presence in the country as it can a regular internecine war.

The sad part is, Somalia bears a striking resemblance to the site of another internecine war in which the U.S. is currently embroiled: Afghanistan. Years of collapsed, weak, or nonexistent government, combined with a raging factional civil war driven by clan, tribal, or ethnic loyalties, now coming under the sway of an Islamist movement that grows its popularity every time it imposes justice and order no matter how brutal, with security and economic consequences that reach into every neighboring region in a negative way: this could be either Afghanistan in the late 1990s or Somalia today.

That’s not to argue that the same mistakes are being made, or even that the two countries are analogous in anything beyond the vaguest sense. But no expert will ever argue that Afghanistan is an easy place to reduce into sound bytes and op-eds, neither is Somalia. We are better served by recognizing the many factors we cannot control that are currently driving the chaos in the Horn of Africa than by falling into petty, partisan finger pointing. Such behavior simply doesn’t address the real issue.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at