Martin Fletcher: Somalia is greatest victim of President Bush’s War on Terror

Roundup: Talking About History

[Martin Fletcher is associate editor and former foreign editor of The Times.]

Afghanistan and Iraq have monopolised the headlines but Somalia is arguably an even greater victim of George W. Bush’s ill-conceived and lamentably executed War on Terror. America’s interventions have proved so catastrophic that its best hope of salvaging something from the wreckage is a president it chased from power three years ago, who controls a few square miles of a country three times the size of Britain.

It has delivered a people that practised a moderate form of Islam into the hands of religious extremists. Its efforts to combat terrorism have turned Somalia into a launchpad for global jihad. Somalia is now the ultimate failed state whose mayhem threatens to destabilise the region and whose pirates maraud the vital shipping lanes off its shores. Its people endure Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis.

During the Cold War, the US pumped arms into Somalia to counter Soviet support for neighbouring Ethiopia. In 1991 clan warlords ousted the dictator Siad Barre and turned that arsenal on each other. In 1992 President Bush Snr sent in the Marines to help its suffering people — a venture that ended in the Black Hawk Down debacle, a humiliating US withdrawal and a dozen more years of anarchy as the feuding warlords ran amok.

In 2006 a grassroots movement called the Islamic Courts Union emerged. Fearing that the Courts would become a new Taleban and Somalia another Afghanistan, Washington sought to stop the Islamists by giving the warlords millions of dollars for arms — the same warlords who had humiliated America in 1993 and subsequently caused such carnage. The plan failed. The Courts drove the warlords from Mogadishu and imposed order for the first time in a generation. The city’s roadblocks and machineguns vanished. Exiles returned, businesses reopened and people ventured out at night.

The Courts’ titular leader was Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a relative moderate, but the movement included a militant wing called al-Shabaab, as well as extremists who imposed strict Islamic law, backed Somali rebels in neighbouring Ethiopia and sheltered terrorists.

Europe broadly favoured engagement with the Courts’ moderate leaders. The Bush Administration backed an invasion by Christian-ruled Ethiopia, Somalia’s bitter enemy, which replaced the Courts with a deeply unpopular transitional government of former warlords. After six months of relative peace Somalia was plunged back into war, with al-Shabaab portraying themselves as nationalists fighting a puppet government. Revisiting Mogadishu in April 2007, I saw how the hopes of peace had evaporated.

Today al-Shabaab controls much of Somalia and most of Mogadishu. It has morphed into a jihadist movement with ties to al-Qaeda...

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