The 20-year conflict in Somalia has finally bled past its borders: Two bombings hit the Ugandan capital Sunday as locals watched the World Cup. Al Shabab, an armed Islamic group in Somalia, has claimed credit for the attacks. Just last week, a Shabab threat to attack Uganda and Burundi was dismissed by authorities.
Western officials and media have predictably spun this as an anti-soccer attack, which will fit neatly into the “they hate us for our freedoms” zeitgeist – Osama bin Laden and other Islamic disgruntleds are simply at war with modernity itself, you see.
Worse, we may be facing calls to intervene further in a renewed Somali civil war – after all, it now has international consequences. But the West, and especially the US, should stay out of it. Despite frequent claims that Shabab “has ties” to Al Qaeda, the connection is limited to rhetorical support. And for all the warnings about the dangers of a “failed state” in the Horn of Africa, Somalia’s bearing on American security is marginal at most.
A long history of intervention
The US has a long history of intervention in Somalia. Dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was courted by both the US and the Soviet Union throughout his post-colonial rule. In 1991 opposing militias overthrew Barre’s regime and made Mogadishu a battleground in which up to 20,000 people were killed. The militias were hijacking UN food aid and trading it for weapons, which prompted a US-led intervention to safeguard distribution to a starving population.
War gave way in the late 1990s to the businesslike Somalis embracing commerce over conflict. The early 2000s were a comparative golden age of living standards for a population which had rarely seen the likes of running water, electricity, phone, and Internet service, trash pickup, schooling, and health care – all now provided in a market unhampered by taxation or regulation. In less than a decade, Somalis went from starving to prosperous, by African standards.
Incredibly, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Washington began contracting Aidid’s son (a former US Marine) and other warlords to “fight Al Qaeda,” which Bush officials feared could operate freely in the “power vacuum” of stateless Somalia. But millions in cash and weapons simply unleashed a renewed contest for power as the favored militias ignored Al Qaeda and attacked their rivals.
The Islamist rise in Somalia
The situation worsened until Islamic Courts Union (ICU) militias joined forces to rid the country of these American-financed warlords. The latter fled to Kenya, and together with former apparatchiks of the Barre regime, formed the “Transitional Federal Government,” (TFG) with the backing of the international community, the 14th such attempt to foist a central government upon the Somalis.
The West considered the ICU a terrorist organization affiliated with Al Qaeda, though it was run by some rather moderate elements who simply looked to impose order; strict as they may have been, Somalis considered them better than the warlords. In response, the Bush administration asked Ethiopia to invade its traditional enemy neighbor and install the TFG to power.
The corrupt TFG now controls only a few blocks of Mogadishu, after Al Shabab last year took even the government’s erstwhile base of support in a remote city. Clan-based militias and Islamists of various shades control other swathes of the country. The economy is destroyed after years of war.
This gave rise to another recent boogeyman: fishermen dabbling in piracy to feed their again-impoverished communities.
And international intervention has provoked outrage among the Somali diaspora, leading some of the more impressionable elements into holy war against the occupation – and into the ranks of Al Shabab.
The African Union, an organization made up of various kleptocratic regimes from around the continent, agree with the UN and US that Somalia must have a traditional European-style central state. Member countries Uganda and Burundi have troops stationed in Mogadishu; Uganda’s contingent of 5,000 makes up the bulk of this force. Al Shabab has often threatened to punish these countries for their involvement. It seems they have now succeeded, and scores of Ugandans are dead.
The coming spin will make every attempt to ignore the years of Al Shabab’s warnings, having nothing to do with sports and everything to do with occupation. Ugandan troops kill Shabab fighters in their own land. This is the plainest example of blowback the modern world can offer our pundits.
Washington’s intervention has only exacerbated problems in the region. It’s time once and for all for Somalis to be free of international meddling. It hasn’t helped them, and as the Ugandans can now attest, it hasn’t helped us.