War and famine, the only option? Part II

As we saw in part I, in January aid agencies warned the UN and the TFG's various “donors” that the humanitarian crisis (already considered one of the worst in the world) would explode if rains failed in April. When the warnings came to pass, the crisis quickly reached famine levels in southern Somalia, in large part due to the systematic dismantling of humanitarian aid.

As soon as warnings of the pending crisis were known, the responsible response would have been to repair the broken system of humanitarian aid. Beyond making calls for funding (which were largely ignored until July), external parties could have: (1) dropped all crippling aid restrictions; and (2) pressured their Somali allies to call for a ceasefire and pursue direct dialogue with Al Shabaab leaders in order to guarantee humanitarian access throughout southern and central Somalia.

After likely thousands of deaths and increasing international criticism, the Obama administration informally loosened its aid restrictions in early August. Regarding a ceasefire and negotiations, this option has not been seriously pursued. Recently, there have been calls to test the rift within Al Shabaab and initiate dialogue with the “moderate” elements over humanitarian access. So far, aid agencies have been left on their own to do so.

Recent reports claim that the issue of opening up humanitarian access is a source of internal division between the more “moderate” (nationalist-oriented) and “hardline” (international terror-oriented) elements of Al Shabaab. While divisions may be exacerbating, the disagreement over humanitarian access is not new. In January, The East African (Kenya) reported that a group of Al Shabaab commanders asked the top decision-making body to accept the return of aid agencies in the region. Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and its backers could have tested the grounds for dialogue and negotiations then (and preferably years ago). Instead of doing so, the TFG and its loosely allied local militias and the AU "peacekeeping" mission, AMISOM, spearheaded a military offensive in February that has been backed by the UN and “donor” powers.

The refusal to pursue dialogue and negotiations as a potential opportunity to increase aid access is a clear indication that the TFG, AMISOM and their external backers have subordinated alleviating the humanitarian crisis to their respective military strategies, with Somali civilians suffering the consequences.


Spring Offensive

The military offesenive took place mainly inside Mogadishu and along the borders of Kenya and Ethiopia. Both Kenyan and Ethiopian governments deployed military units inside southern Somalia to back their proxy Somali militias, actions which were in direct violation of the longstanding Somali arms embargo. Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report on August 15 describing how all parties to the conflict are guilty of extensive war crimes and how these crimes and the “spike in fighting from February to May” has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.[1]

The impacts include:thousands of civilian casualties, overburdened hospitals filled with wounded civilians, and an increased number of displaced civilians. Fighting along the border has contributed to Somalis' woes by effectively blocking civilians from fleeing across the border for safety, as well as damaging vital infrastructure. For example, in April Kenyan tanks and artillery shelled a community hospital in a border town, which HRW suspects may have been deliberate.[2]

The TFG and AMISOM's military gains were marginal until the first week of August when Al Shabaab militants withdrew from Mogadishu. The withdrawal has allowed aid to be brought into capital, certainly a positive development–though one not without challenges. Government troops and allied clan militias have reportedly looted aid, which, in multiple incidents, resulted in the murder of civilian bystanders as they fought each other to steal food.

TFG officials have declared they will continue the offensive, while offering amnesty to Al Shabaab fighters in Mogadishu. With reprieve from the crisis not expected to occur until December or January, it is unlikely that the TFG and AMISOM will be able to extend their territorial gains in time to provide aid to Somalis subject to Al Shabaab's ban. Even with an AMISOM troop increase to meet its full mandate level of 12,000 (it is currently at 9,000), increasing territorial gains will be neither easy nor timely. Indeed, a likely scenario for the coming months is that TFG and AMISOM forces will have difficulties consolidating their control of Mogadishu against attacks from Al Shabaab, whose withdrawal was part of a tactical change that now focuses on “hit and run attacks,” which have already killed forty-five people in the capital, according to SomaliaReport.

In short, the military option remains replete with challenges, which raises the question: Why hasn't a peaceful option been pursued? For the TFG's top backer, higher pursuits got in the way of taking on the role of constructive outsider.

Higher Priorities

In recent years, Somalia has emerged as a central front in the Pentagon's global “secret war” that the Obama administration has expanded dramatically. The war is executed primarily by the Special Operations Command (SOCOM), “a secret military within the military possessing domestic power and global reach,” writes Nick Turse, who recently shed light on the development. SOCOM carries out a wide range of secret operations, most of which are criminal, that include: high-profile assassinations, low-level targeted killings, capture and kidnap operations, night raids, foreign troop training, intelligence gathering, and more.

Al Shabaab is at the center of the Somalia front in this “secret war.” U.S. concerns over Al Shabaab have little to do with the threat it poses inside Somalia, but rather its potential reach outside of Somalia, particularly into the resource-rich Middle East that is at the center of U.S. geostrategic interests. Somalia's geographic position “puts the country astride the main trade route between Europe, the Middle East and Asia—waters through which 12 percent of total global maritime trade and 30 percent of the world’s crude oil shipments transit,” writes J. Peter Pham in the National Interest in June. The prolonged crisis in Somalia has created “conditions exceptionally favorable to piracy” and strengthened ties between Al Shabaab and terrorist organizations on the other side of the water.

The Al Shabaab threat has become more accute due to the popular opposition to long-time Yemen dictator and U.S. client, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Obama administration's fear, among other things, is that a new (democratic) government in Yemen – which sits on the opposite side of the narrow Gulf of Aden from Somalia – will jeopardize the free reign that Saleh has given the U.S. to carry out deadly airstrikes and drone attacks against alleged members of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

For years U.S. intelligence has pointed to growing ties between Al Shabaab and AQAP leaders.[3] In the last few months, U.S. officials have claimed the groups' leaders are forging closer ties and potentially planning attacks against the U.S. The administration has relied on this “new evidence” as a pretext to justify its counterterrorism operations conducted in recent months against Al Shabaab. Irrespective of the veracity of these claims, the operations are undoubtedly in response to the "destabilizing" situation in Yemen and the administration's frustration with the TFG's inability to consolidate its rule and serve as a viable “counterterrorism partner.”

In July, Jeremy Scahil from The Nation exposed key aspects of the Obama administration's counterterrorism program in Somalia. Operations have taken the form of targeted strikes by US Special Operations forces, drone attacks and surveillance operations. The U.S. has also constructed a compound at Mogadishu's airport where the CIA trains Somali intelligence agents and operatives. The aim is to build “an indigenous strike force capable of snatch operations and targeted 'combat' operations against members of Al Shabab,” writes Scahil. The CIA also has a secret prison in the basement of Somalia's National Security Agency headquarters that has been called an “out-sourced Guantanamo Bay in central Mogadishu,” where individuals with alleged ties to Al Shabaab are interrogated and likely tortured.

While starvation was claiming thousands of childrens' lives, Washington authorized a series of unilateral military strikes against Al Shabaab. Scahill documents two cases: a drone strike near the port city of Kismayo on June 23 and three more U.S. strikes at Al Shabaab training camps on July 6 (around the same time Al Shabaab leaders agreed to grant aid access). According to Scahill, this is all part of an “emerging US strategy” in Somalia, based largely on “unilateral strikes without the prior knowledge of the government,” and in violation of UNSC Resolutions.

These strikes may have been a factor in Al Shabaab's July 21 decision to retract its earlier decision and maintain its ban on Western aid agencies. On July 28, the Guardian reported,

The drought and famine have deepened discord among al-Shabaab leaders that has been apparent for some time. Some have supported a lifting of the ban on operations of international aid agencies, while others, such as its top commander, Ahmed Cabdi Godane, reportedly opposed the move on the grounds that NGOs might provide intelligence for [more] US drone air strikes.

The degree to which U.S. air strikes factored in the decision by Al Shabaab leaders remains unclear.

Turning to the Obama administration's decision, one can reasonably surmise that the illegal airstrikes' potential impact on the humanitarian crisis factored in little, at best. The administration's delayed and begrudged loosening of aid restrictions makes clear the ranking of humanitarian concerns, as well as its response to calls for addressing the Somalia crisis through peaceful means.

Calls for Dialogue Fall on Deaf Ears

One responsible proposal was put forth from Washington. The first week of August Congressman Christopher Smith (R-NJ) sent a letter to the White House calling on it to pressure the “international community” to negotiate directly with Al Shabaab over the establishment of “corridors of tranquility,” where all sides agree to a temporary ceasefire and guarantee the safe passage of aid.[4] So far, there has been no indication that the administration has even acknolwedged the proposal, preferring instead to support the TFG/AMISOM offensive.

Others have recommended pursuing direct dialogue with Al Shabaab. Norway's Foreign Minister, Jonas Habr Store, told a Norwegian newspaper that “Up to now there's been a policy of no contact with the groups making up the Al-Shabaab militia . . . . I think it's time to re-evaluate that policy.” The German Development Minister, Dirk Niebel, echoed this sentiment when he asserted the “need to initiate conversations with those forces who are willing to talk,” noting that “Al-Shabab is not the same everywhere.”

We should bear in mind that the idea has been proposed before, even within establishment circles. For example, Bronwyn Bruton from the Council on Foreign Relations released a report in March 2010 where she proposed that the U.S., UN and other outside parties view the TFG “as a vehicle for dialgue, rather than as a threat to the existing distribution of territorial control. To achieve that end, international military support intended to increase the TFG's territory . . . must cease.”[5]

She went on to write,

If fundamentalist and radical actors are given the capacity to interact with the TFG and the international community directly and on an equal footing, the likelihood of a political settlement will increase, and the TFG may succeed in isolating transnational terrorists currently hiding within the Shabaab.

Key to Bruton's proposal was for the Obama administration to do two things: First, refrain from direct U.S. military operations on Somali soil in order to prevent further enflaming anti-Americanism—a phenomenon incited by the Bush administration's backing of Somali warlords and Ethiopia's illegal invasion and occupation. Second, restrain Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi regime, whose guiding policy towards Somalia is to install a weak and divided client government that can be managed from Addis Ababa. (A favorite strategy of the regime has been to undermine any peace process that threatens the power of its Somali clients through arming and backing client warlords and fomenting hostilities.)[6]

As a means of facilitating cooperation, Bruton also recommended that the U.S. remove specific individuals from its terrorist list, like Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who made the list for being suspected of having ties with terrorist suspects. Her recommendations evidently made no impression in Washington.

Other analysts have called for dialogue. Rashid Abdi and Ernst Jan Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa analysts with the International Crisis Group, argued in May 2010 that the TFG should reach out to the Al Shabaab militants who never supported the international orientation of the movement's small cohort of local and foreign leaders. According to Abdi and Hogendoorn, the TFG had failed to serve as a vehicle for peace, not only by its failure to develop a national reconciliation strategy but also by rebuffing insurgent leaders who reached out to transitional leaders.

The prospect for dialogue and a potential political settelment to the conflict became more distant following the July 11, 2010 terrorist bombings in Kampala, Uganda that killed an estimated 79 civilians. Al Shabaab's spokesman claimed the bombings were in retaliation for Uganda's participation in AMISOM. It should be noted however that taking credit for an act which Al Shabaab's leaders viewed as an accomplishment is not itself reliable proof of guilt.

From August through September 2010, Al Shabaab waged the “Ramadan Offensive” in Mogadishu. In retaliation for the Kampala bombings and to regain minor territorial losses, Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni, ordered an AMISOM military offensive beginning in October. Mogadishu turned into a bloodbath. According to a UN Secretary General report, “From September to November, approximately 1,600 weapons-related casualties, including 127 children under 5, were reported in Mogadishu”[7], largely a consequence of AMISOM's indiscriminate shelling of civilian-populated areas in response to Al Shabaab mortar fire.

Human Rights Watch claims hat there has been another 4,000 civilian casualties in southern Somalia since late 2010.[8] These deaths are in addition to the thousands who have died in the past three months, with millions of more lives threatened. At this point, there is no indication that the TFG, AU, or UN are planning to pursue dialogue with any elements under the Al Shabaab umbrella.


Triumph of Power

For Somalia to move beyond its perpetual state of humanitarian crisis, a viable peace process must be undertaken alongside massive international assistance put towards rebuilding the country's fragile economy and demolished infrastructure (health, education, etc.). The situation in Somalia is entirely too precarious to gauge when the next opportunity for peace and nation-building will occur, the last one being the rise of the UIC, which was crushed from outside. Until another opportunity develops, Somalia will continue to swing from severe to catastrophic episodes of humanitarian crisis.

The recent explosion in the crisis should be understood as part of the aftermath of U.S./Ethiopian aggression. The administration has made a concerted effort to deny the central role of Washington in driving Somalia into its current state. Officials have advanced this propagandistic objective by attributing Somalia's predicament to mainly internal factors and lack of international engagement. As put by the Obama administration's senior Africa policymaker, Johnnie Carson, “Somalia has collapsed in on itself,” adding that if the country is to recover from its implosion it can no longer suffer the “benign neglect by the United States.”

Pointing to any one of the recent U.S. policies in Somalia (backing warlords, sponsoring foreign aggression, dismantling the country's system of humanitarian relief, or illegal airstrikes) is enough to reveal the profound contempt for Somali life present in the administration's position. But there are other bouts of “benign neglect” that should not be forgotten.

Somalis were some of the first victims of Bush II's “war on terror.” In early November 2001 the administration closed Al Barakaat, the largest remittance network operating in Somalia at the time. The closure came two weeks after the UN announced that 300,000 Somalis faced immediate starvation due to drought and food shortage. Shutting down Al Barakaat resulted in an immediate decline in remittances that delivered a serious blow to a country characterized by one UN official as “close to the precipice of complete and total economic failure.” The action was justified on grounds that Al Barakaat was financing Al Qaeda, a charge the Bush administration withdrew a year later for lack of evidence.

Turning to the “scourge of piracy” off Somalia's coast, its growth is partly a consequence of crimes against Somalis by external actors. Since the early 1990s, Somalia's shores have been used as a “dumping ground” for toxic and nuclear waste by European and Asian companies, while others have illegally exploited Somalia's unprotected fish resources. The “international community” has paid little attention to these crimes. Only crimes at sea committed by Somalis are worthy of a response since they impact the international trade that matters: commerce among powerful states.[9]

With this history of “benign neglect” in mind, to call the massive short- and long-term international assistance the Somalia crisis demands “aid” amounts to a triumph of power and its system of doctrinal support. As victims of aggression and other crimes, Somalis are entitled to massive reparations, and more. But given the cast of criminal states, Somalis will be lucky to receive assistance that amounts to pittances in comparison to the damages suffered, while being subject to the additional contempt of witnessing their destroyers simultaneously praise themselves for their benevolence and deny their responsibility



[1] “'You Don't Know Who to Blame': War Crimes in Somalia,” 20 and 29.

[2] Ibid, 1, 21, and 22.

[3] Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia: A Ticking Time Bomb, United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, January 21, 2010.

[4] See also “US lawmaker urges humanitarian corridors in Somalia,” AFP, Hiraan Online, August 5, 2011; and Newsmakers with Chris Smith, C-SPAN, August 5, 2011, http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/300911-1.

[5] “Somalia: A New Approach,” 24.

[6] Ibid. See also Afyare Abdi Elmi, Understanding the Somalia Conflagration (London: Pluto Press, 2010), 96.

[7] See UN Secretary General Report (S/2010/675), 5.

[8] “'You Don't Know Who to Blame',” 1.

[9] See “'Toxic waste' behind Somali piracy,” Al Jazeera, October 11, 2009; and Abdi Ismail Samatar, Mark Lindberg, and Basil Mahayni, “The Dialectics of Piracy in Somalia: the rich versus the poor,” Third World Quarterly, 31:8, 1377 – 1394.

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