At the beginning of May the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a U.S.- and U.K.-government-financed organization that monitors various food crises around the world, released a new report detailing the horrific consequences of the Somali famine of 2011.
According to FEWS NET, “An estimated 4.6 percent of the total population and 10 percent of children under 5 died in Southern and Central Somalia [between October 2010 and April 2012.]”
It is now estimated that more than a quarter of a million people died, more than half of them — at least 125,000 — children. This is more than twice the number the British government had previously concluded.
Even in the midst of the global economic crisis, there is enough wealth in the world that it is an outrage so many should die of such extreme poverty and deprivation. But what is absolutely unforgivable is the role played by the U.S. government in making a horrible drought into a humanitarian catastrophe in what has to be the worst case of the strong picking on the weak since — well, probably the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
If one were to bring up U.S. intervention in Somalia to most Americans, they would probably think only of George H.W. Bush’s “Operation Restore Hope” food-aid mission in 1992, which turned into the infamous “Black Hawk Down” warlord-hunting debacle under Bill Clinton in 1993. The U.S. government thankfully stayed out of the Somali civil war in the years that followed.
By the turn of the century Somalia was more free and prosperous than it had ever been. It was not that Austrian-American anarcho-capitalism had taken hold in the minds of Somali economists and policymakers, but simply that their various postcommunist warlords had finally worn themselves out after years of fighting, and had left the place as a stateless, if not completely ungoverned, society. There were still highwaymen and gangsters here and there, but none had the ability to do any large-scale damage.
Somalia was never paradise.
According to a 2003 article by Michael van Notten in Liberty magazine and a 2007 paper by Peter T. Leeson of George Mason University in the Journal of Comparative Economics, anarchy was working out. Old Somali tribal customs for dealing with disputes came back into effect, violence waned, trade in the markets and at the ports was soaring, technology was advancing, and health and wealth were growing. By virtually every measure, the Somali standard of living was rising.
Somalia was never a paradise — though some progressives enjoy pretending that libertarians think it was. But by any measure the short era of statelessness was preferable to the preceding eras of communism and civil war, and was certainly better than what was in store for Somalis when the Yankees returned.
In the summer of 2000 the U.S. government and its allies attempted to create a Transitional National Government (TNG), later called the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), to rule, though it had very little real power.
Then in 2001 came the September 11 attacks, and the U.S. government decided to take full advantage of the crisis to extend its military hegemony across the planet.
As General Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, explained in 2007 at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his staff had drawn up a hit list of countries ripe for “regime change” shortly after the 9/11 attacks. At the top of the list were Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran — none of which had any involvement whatsoever in the attacks or any real ties to those who did.
The fact that Somalia, strategically located on the Horn of Africa, was included on this list seemed to emphasize that the policy was about expanding the American empire’s power and influence rather than protecting America from foreign attack. Luckily for the Pentagon and CIA, it was not very difficult to find cutthroat warlords willing to accept their cash to carry out targeted assassinations and kidnappings against those they accused of being Islamists — or anyone else they felt like targeting.
What happened next is almost a perfect microcosm of the whole terror war. It is as tragic as it was predictable.
The more the CIA supported the warlords — including the son of Mohamed Farrah Aidid, villain of Bill Clinton’s Somalia misadventure — the worse they abused people. More abuse spurred more local resistance to the warlords and then more support from the Americans to counter it. The cycle of violence continued until the Somali public was finally motivated to support the rise of a new government, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), to protect them in 2005. The combined forces of the 13 groups in the Courts Union drove the warlords and the Transitional Federal Government out of the country and established themselves in power in the capital by the summer of 2006.
The ICU then declared the reign of Islamic law. That, of course, was none of America’s business, and even if it had been, the Somali regime lacked the power to create an authoritarian religious state like, say, U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, the ICU was led mostly by truly grassroots imams, uncles, and elders — the last men standing after decades of communism and war — rather than strongmen who had simply seized power. There had been no power to seize. And Somalia’s traditional Muslim beliefs were much more laid-back and tolerant than those in Arabia. While they did close a couple of local movie theaters and other minor things that grabbed headlines in the West, the Courts Union had no ability or desire to turn Somalia into totalitarian Afghanistan under the Taliban, or to pick a fight with the United States.
But they had defied the empire and won, for the moment. Then Uncle Sam got mean. In late December 2006, U.S. satellite state Ethiopia, its dictator’s arm twisted by the U.S. government, invaded Somalia, with CIA and special-operations officers leading the attack. The Islamic Courts Union was quickly smashed and driven from power.
The Bush regime hardly bothered with an excuse for the war, telling the Washington Post that this invasion by proxy was justified by the supposed presence of just three “suspects” “wanted for questioning” by the FBI in connection with the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.
The army of the Christian Ethiopians, historic rivals of the Somalis, took the opportunity to ravage the helpless country for two years. They were accused of numerous war crimes against civilians, including rape and mass murder on a grand scale, and the “renditioning” of approximately 85 Somalis and others to Ethiopia to be tortured. At least one American citizen, Amir Mohamed Meshal, caught at the Kenyan border, was presumed guilty of terrorism, threatened with torture and death, and denied all access to the American consulate or other legal representation while he was repeatedly interrogated by the FBI and CIA.
In 2008, with the help of what had been the youngest and least influential group in the ICU, al-Shabaab (“the youth”), the people of Somalia finally drove the Ethiopians out of the country after two years of fighting. At that point it appeared the Bush administration had simply run out of time, and so Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a deal with the old men of the ICU. The U.S. government would let them take power in Mogadishu if they would accept the form of the Transitional Federal Government the Bush administration had created. That way the Republicans could at least save a little bit of face in their failure.
The former ICU leaders took the deal. They were immediately denounced as traitors and American lackeys by the armed young men who had won the war. Al-Shabaab vowed to fight on. It was only then — years after the whole mess began — that it declared loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. It started acting like al-Qaeda too, implementing Arabian-style laws and punishments in the areas they dominated, such as cutting off the hands of those accused of stealing.
The story has been covered by few in the West. The best work has been done by intrepid investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill in his book Dirty Wars, which reveals that the U.S. government meant to keep Sheik Sharif, the former head of the ICU, all along. The whole war was launched because it was “preferable” that Sharif be “weakened,” but ultimately “co-opted.” He ended up staying in power until 2012.
Nation-building: Obama edition
Benefiting greatly from the fact that hardly anyone in the United States knows the first thing about the crisis and that even fewer care, Obama’s junta remains on the same Bush/Cheney course of stumbling blindly in vain for a policy on Somalia that will solve the problems created by their last great idea, or that will even make sense at all.
After the Ethiopians withdrew, they sent in the armies of Uganda and Burundi under the auspices of the African Union to hunt down and destroy al-Shabaab. Then came the Kenyans, who apparently panicked after luxury resorts near their border had come under attack. In 2011 the Ethiopians reinvaded. Kenyan forces took the port city of Kismayo from al-Shabaab in 2012 and loudly declared victory when the rebels melted away. But the stubborn insurgency continues the fight.
The Americans, for their part, continue to back the invading forces, as well as what passes for the “government” in Mogadishu, with hundreds of tons of weapons and tens of millions of dollars.
The CIA and military have also remained directly involved, partly by advising the politicians, police, and military in the capital, but also by firing deadly cruise missiles from submarines at thatched huts full of women and children, by mounting helicopter attacks, by launching repeated drone strikes from a little formerly French-conquered airstrip of a country called Djibouti, and by overseeing at least two different torture dungeons; one found by Scahill and his photojournalist partner Rick Rowley, and the other by the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake (whose reporting in this instance seems credible).
Though the May FEWS NET study focuses on 2011, the drought and starvation started really kicking in back in 2009 and 2010, as Human Rights Watch activist and Africa expert Leslie Lefkow explained on my radio show at the time. But the bad weather couldn’t have picked a worse war to intervene in. The drought hit the whole Horn of Africa, but the Somalis took it the hardest. All the chaos, fighting, and killing over the past three to four years had made it much more difficult for farmers to save their crops, and then the few who could had much more difficulty getting the food to market, where no one had any money anyway. The economy was ruined. Millions were living in makeshift refugee camps up and down the roadways.
Finally the rains did come back and the famine was broken, but at unimaginable cost to the people of that tragic land. And the war continues.
This article was originally published in the September 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.