In Somalia, a New Template for Fighting Terrorism

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Somalia isn’t just a nagging geopolitical headache that won’t go away. It is also a cautionary tale. Few countries in modern history have been governmentless for so long, and as the United States has learned, it would be nice to think you could ignore this wild, thirsty, mostly nomadic nation 7,000 miles away. But you can’t

Al Qaeda is working feverishly to turn Somalia into a global jihad factory, according to recent intelligence assessments, and the way the United States chooses to respond could serve as a template for other fronts in the wider counterterrorism war. Just last month, American helicopters swept over the dusty Somali horizon to take out Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a wanted Qaeda suspect who had been hiding out in Somalia for years and training a new bevy of killers; some of those trainees are believed to be Somali-Americans who could easily slip back into the United States and do some serious damage as suicide bombers

In a way, the daring daylight strike against Mr. Nabhan, which was supposedly part of the Obama administration’s shift from targeting terrorists with cruise missiles that often kill civilians, was a flashback. Few in Somalia — or the American military — have forgotten Black Hawk Down, the battle in October 1993 when Somali militiamen in flip-flops killed 18 American soldiers, including members of the Army’s elite Delta Force. It was a searing humiliation for the Pentagon, which had just emerged from the first gulf war pumped up on smart bombs and laser-guided missiles, but in Somalia found itself back in a Vietnam-style quagmire where high technology was no match for local rage.

Black Hawk Down made the United States gun-shy for years, contributing to its failure to intervene against genocide in Rwanda and, for a time, in Bosnia, too. The battle itself was immortalized in a so-so film and a great book — required reading for some courses at West Point.

“Never again, that was the message,” said John Nagl, a retired Army officer who was on the team that wrote the military’s new counterinsurgency field manual. “People were saying this is what happens when we get involved in small wars in places we don’t understand.”

But American policy has pivoted since 1993 to another question: What happens when we don’t get involved?

The experience in Somalia speaks to that concern as well — to the problems of ignoring any patch of ungoverned territory, especially in the Muslim world, whose anarchy might tempt the arrival of the likes of Al Qaeda.

Concern about the perils of lawlessness is not new to American policy planning, of course; it was an element in the Reagan administration’s abortive effort to help calm Lebanon in 1982. But it has acquired intense urgency since Sept. 11, 2001, and now figures heavily in calculations about Afghanistan and Pakistan, about the pace of extracting American forces from Iraq — and in a reprise of 1993, about what to do in Somalia.

The United States has never really understood this place. “I frequently marveled at how little Washington seemed to care about what was happening in Somalia during 1989-90, but as an old African hand I simply chalked it up to the low level of priority that the department almost always attached to African affairs,” said Frank Crigler, American ambassador to Somalia from 1987 to 1990. “The only question people asked us was, ‘What happens after Siad?’ ” His reference was to Siad Barre, the dictator who was ousted by clan warlords in 1991, ushering in the chaos that reigns today.

“We hazarded a few guesses” about what would follow Siad’s rule, Mr. Crigler said, “but we never came close to imagining the scenario that eventually unfolded or the humanitarian nightmare.”

A drought that swept the country in 1992 killed several hundred thousand Somalis. There was probably enough food in the country at the time. But the clan warlords, for whatever calculations, were blocking aid shipments from reaching the parched interior. In his final months in office, President George H. W. Bush set in motion an enormous peacekeeping mission — nearly 30,000 American soldiers — to feed the Somalis. This was during the heady days of the post-Soviet “new world order.” The aid eventually got through and probably saved half a million lives. But even as it was turning over the mission to the United Nations, the new Clinton administration allowed itself to get sucked into Somalia’s vortex of warring clans.

On Oct. 3, 1993, the 18 Black Hawk Down soldiers were killed during an attempt to arrest the pre-eminent warlord of the day, Muhammad Farah Aideed. In the end, Mr. Aideed’s extortionist sins were forgiven by the Somali people, who were desperate to rally around someone resembling a national leader. The United States pulled out early in 1994, having acquired a cautionary new military term still widely used today: mission creep. The United Nations left the next year, as Somalia tumbled into chaos.

Just as the United States all but forgot about Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew with their tails between their legs in 1989, the United States all but forgot about Somalia after the American military slunk away five years later. And the same thing happened. Both countries are almost purely Muslim; in both places a grass-roots Islamist movement emerged as the panacea to disorder; and in both places, Al Qaeda was not far behind. Actually, Osama bin Laden’s men may have gotten to Somalia first; Somalia is believed to have been the staging ground for the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

One widely held misperception about Somalia is that it is rabidly anti-American. This may come from the indelible images of gleeful Somalis dragging the corpses of American soldiers through the streets after militiamen shot down the two Black Hawk helicopters and a heavily armed mob finished them off. Later American policies did little to curb antagonisms. In 2006, the C.I.A. shoveled a few million dollars to predacious warlords in an attempt to stymie a competing Islamist movement. When that didn’t work, the American government supported Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic enemy, when it invaded. What followed was a nasty guerilla war that ended only when the Ethiopians agreed to leave earlier this year and the Islamists were allowed back in. Essentially, the 2006 status quo was returned, minus 15,000 Somalis, now dead...


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