When we think about Somalia, a few things might come to mind. Pirates, perhaps, who were in the international news quite a lot a few years ago. Maybe you also know the terrorist organisation al-Shabaab, or even the fact that the US is currently fighting in the region, but either way, for most people, Somalia is a place that is hardly ever considered. Just like with Yemen a few weeks ago, I figured it was time to change that, because not only is the recent history of Somalia incredibly fascinating, but it might also tell us much about those conflicts which do appear in the news on a daily basis.
To start out simple, Somalia is a country in the Horn of Africa, on the east coast and not too far from the Arabian peninsula. It is a Muslim country, and in colonial times, the south-eastern part belonged to Italy, while the northern part belonged to Britain. It became independent on the 1st of July 1960, coincidentally enough on the exact same day as the Democratic Republic of Congo, but while that country collapsed into civil war immediately, Somalia fared just fine. At least, that was until 1969, when the country was taken over by a military coup, leading to an always pleasant dictatorial regime. Fast-forward to January 1991, just when the Second Cold War was coming to an end, and this dictator was finally deposed, leading to an almost inevitable civil war.
The United Nations soon became involved, but they faced many problems, including the fact that international law dictated that they needed consent from the host state to interfere, but with the country fallen apart into factions, that was impossible. It took until April 1992 for the UN to finally decide that the atrocities of the war were too much, leading them to ignore international law for a moment, and to establish a peacekeeping mission.
This mission, however, stood no chance: part of the tactic of the various factions was to starve the enemy by controlling food supplies, so even distributing humanitarian aid, as the UN was used to do, was actually an act of war. This meant that the UN was constantly obstructed, and that’s when things got interesting: the United States, having just won the Cold War, decided to get involved personally. This hadn’t happened during the Cold War, when peacekeeping was left to “neutral” countries, but with the Cold War over, why wouldn’t they offer their help themselves?
The US-led operation lasted 6 months, with 37.000 soldiers being deployed, and it had immediate effect: the US troops inspired enough fear for them to be left alone, so that they could properly distribute aid. However, US troops turned out to have a very important weakness, one that is widely known in the peacekeeping world, but completely lost by the public. That weakness is that US soldiers don’t have a “peacekeeping culture.” They are trained to identify an enemy, and then to fight that enemy, which is exactly what they did in Somalia. Unfortunately, there had never truly been a “bad guy” in the conflict, so instead, the US focused their efforts on the most powerful warlord (a leader named Aideed), and gave him the role of “bad guy”. Rather than being a peacekeeping force, then, the US task force became a part of the war.
The results were disastrous. With much “collateral damage” inflicted on the Somali population, the common people soon began to resent the US force rather than welcoming them as a peacekeeping force. This was manageable when there were still 37.000 troops on the ground, but when the US left after 6 months and the mission was handed back to the UN, things went wrong. Within a few months, more peacekeepers had been killed than since the conflict in the Congo in 1961, forcing them to retreat, because UN peacekeepers aren’t meant to be fighting anyone. Somalia was left in ruins.
So what was the result? Somalia ended up becoming stateless for years, and extremism thrived, as it always does in situations of humanitarian crisis. What were seen as US attacks on innocent civilians led to extreme anti-Western views, giving terrorist organisations such as al-Shabaab the opportunity to establish themselves, and to gain a powerful position in society. It was not until very recently that things finally started to look up, with a proper regime being installed, but the effects of the crisis have still not warn off: extremism and terrorism are still thriving, organisations such as al-Shabaab continue to terrorise its people, fuelled by anti-Western sentiments, and since 2007, Somalia has become one of the countries to be subjected to US drone strikes, which, although still relatively modest compared to Yemen, have cost the lives of many civilians, and even some children.
What can be concluded, then, and what has already been concluded by the academic world, is that peacekeeping cannot be left to major global powers. Peacekeeping should be just that: peacekeeping, not war-making. If not, the consequences can be incalculable, because the anti-Western sentiments that were fuelled by the actions in 1993 are still growing ever stronger by the continued involvement of the US army, and the many victims of its “collateral damage.” It has created a vicious circle of conflict and destruction, with right now, no end in sight.
Quick question: I’m considering turning “the political situation of…” into a series. Would you find this interesting, or can I better spend my effort on something else? Let me know! 🙂
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