Monday, April 13, 2009

Beyond Pirate Rescue: What's Really Happening in Somalia?

Also posted at Daily Kos, where the "Comments" section has a great deal of amplifying material on this subject, and is very much worth perusing.

The dramatic rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates made for smash headlines in the U.S. and around the world, but is not the first such dramatic rescue from pirates in these waters. The French had dramatic video footage of one of their captures.

What has not been covered in the news, obsessed with GOP hopes for Obama's first big failure, and Democrats patriotic triumphalism, is that the U.S. has played a big role in plunging Somalia into the chaos that has allowed piracy to take hold there, and that it's an open question how the Obama administration will deal with the bigger picture.

No one wants to see an innocent man be killed or held hostage, so it was with some satisfaction that most heard of the rescue of the sea captain who had offered himself up as hostage for the safety of his crew.

But this kind of small scale human drama is dwarfed by the reality of what has been happening in Somalia for almost two decades now. I don't know why large-scale human drama doesn't play as well in the U.S. media, but I suspect it is because when it serves U.S. interests to exploit a tragedy, headlines are rolled out. When the tragedy, such as the millions of refugees created by the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, is politically inconvenient, the headlines are mysteriously absent.

An Inconvient Fact: The U.S. Helped Create the Conditions for Piracy

From Times Online (a conservative UK newspaper -- emphases added -- H/T Chris Floyd):
Years of violence, neglect and misguided policies have left Somalia one of the most dangerous countries and a breeding ground for the pirates attacking one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

Today the northeast area of the country, including Puntland, has been carved up by warlords who finance themselves by drug and gun running. This is also the heartland of the pirates, whose main backers are linked to the Western-backed government. Radical Islamists control much of the south, including the key port of Kismayo and the porous border area with Kenya, a staunch Western ally.

This has realised a Western nightmare, which was supposed to have been destroyed by Ethiopia’s American-backed invasion of Somalia two years ago in support of a puppet government created by the international community. That alliance spanned the spectrum from extreme radicals to moderate, devout Muslims. The latter were in charge.

Everyone – except Pentagon planners, it seems – knew that Somalia had never proved fertile territory for Saudi-style radical Islam. However, indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas by Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic enemy, with huge casualties, put an end to that. The Islamists were driven out, the moderates went into exile and the hardliners took control of the south with a popular powerbase beyond their wildest dreams.
Approximately 20,000 have died, and almost two million people have been displaced in this senseless civil war, prompted in part by the U.S., and certainly a proxy war with numerous players (the U.S., Ethiopia, various Arab states, Eritrea, even North Korea!, as we shall see).

So while I'm glad this sea captain was rescued, I don't look at the U.S. government as some sort of savior. And I certainly am not angry at Somalians, who did not ask for the rule of warlords, pirates, and hardline Islamists in a fractured state ruling over them. Many have fled for the refugee camps already.
The Huffington Post published an article yesterday by Joanne Offer, IRC information officer in Nairobi, describing the miserable conditions in which a quarter-million Somalian refugees are living in the overcrowded Dadaab camp in eastern Kenya. Dr. Vincent Kahi, the IRC’s health coordinator, described a cholera outbreak: “To date, the number of cases . . . has been small -— just 26 —- and we have managed to contain the outbreak, but resources in the camps remain massively overstretched and provide ideal conditions for diseases like cholera to keep coming back. All [aid] agencies in Dadaab are doing their best, but the sheer number of people in such a small space and in an area with water scarcity is a recipe for future problems.”
While I do not blame Obama -- and please note this, readers who may think I'm trashing Obama -- such facts mute any enthusiasm I have over this latest military show. Again, I'm glad an innocent man was saved, but I'm sick of the U.S. media, who makes a huge thing because it's an American life, but barely makes a peep over what U.S. policy in the region has wrought in past years, and to the miserable suffering of the people in the region.

Convergent Evidence of U.S. Duplicity in Somalia

Those touting the U.S. raid as some sort of Entebbe, i.e., a military action that will make others think twice about messing with the big, bad United States, just don't get it. Even U.S. Naval Forces Central Command chief Vice Adm. Bill Gortney stated after the rescue, "This could escalate violence in this part of the world, no question about it."

Other pirates in the region are quoted as making violent threats, but the real truth is that the pirates already understand that the U.S. will intervene in their region at will, as in the backing the Ethiopian invasion of their country to overthrow their government. Does anyone really think that this one incident will significantly change their consciousness of what the U.S. can do?

A commenter in another diary called Somalia "a pawn of foreign interests and paranoia"? I'd say so. The former includes the United States, and their paranoia is well-earned.

From an article in The Progressive in Dec. 2008:
Alas, there are no good guys in this war. Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi is a nasty piece of work. He has been a darling of the United States ever since the Clinton Administration’s time, when he was hailed as being part of the “African renaissance.” The war on terror has drawn Zenawi, a Christian leader of a religiously mixed but Christian-dominated country, closer to the Bush Administration. African renaissance man or not, he has been ruthless in his exercise of power. For instance, Ethiopian security forces killed nearly fifty people in November 2005 in a crackdown on protests. They also arrested thousands, including politicians, journalists, and activists.

U.S. policy in Somalia is born out of desperation. The United States abandoned Somalia after its failed mission in the early 1990s, and looked the other way as the country was mired in anarchy for the next decade. It was only recently that the Bush Administration, frightened by Islamic fundamentalism, began a dubious policy of handing out cash to Somali warlords as a way to check the Islamist militias....

The human toll of the invasion is increasing day by day. Plus, the U.S. backing for the invasion will add to its unpopularity on the continent and in the Middle East. The African Union and the Arab League have called for Ethiopia to pull out, as have Kenya and Djibouti. The United States should firmly add its voice, and instead of backing military adventures should invest in the Somali peace process as a way of staving off the Islamist threat.
The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia had full U.S. military backing. So you see, the Somalis have already tasted what U.S. military power can do. From coverage in Wired:
Citing the possibility that the Islamic Courts government was harboring terrorists, the Pentagon ordered gunships, fighters and warships to attack targets in Somalia, paving the way for Ethiopian tanks to sweep south, destroying Somalia's first relatively stable government in 15 years. What Somalia was left with is starvation, tribal infighting, a brutal Ethiopian occupation and, ironically, a genuine Islamic insurgency where before there was only a suspicion of one....
Even the European Union warned the U.S. that bombing Somali towns "only escalates violence," as it purportedly goes after Al Qaeda Islamists.

Oh, and here's another example of U.S. duplicity and cynicism in the region that will blow your mind, from the NY Times in April 2007:
WASHINGTON, April 7 — Three months after the United States successfully pressed the United Nations to impose strict sanctions on North Korea because of the country's nuclear test, Bush administration officials allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from the North, in what appears to be a violation of the restrictions, according to senior American officials.

The United States allowed the arms delivery to go through in January in part because Ethiopia was in the midst of a military offensive against Islamic militias inside Somalia, a campaign that aided the American policy of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.
Obama and Somalia

What of President Obama's policy towards Somalia? One sea rescue does not make a foreign policy.

When he was running for president, Obama stated that he wanted “a coherent strategy for stabilizing Somalia."

Writing at Foreign Policy in Focus earlier this year, Francis Njubi Nesbitt described the situation for the new Obama administration (emphasis in original):
Among the litany of booby traps left by the Bush administration for the Obama team, Somalia could be one of the most complicated and bizarre....

The Obama administration, if Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing is any indication, also views the Horn of Africa in the context of terrorism.

Nevertheless, Obama has also talked of his preference for diplomatic solutions. Somalia would be an ideal place to test his diplomacy.
Nesbitt described the particulars of the Ethiopian invasion, providing readers here with yet another description of the situation, the better for us to form an opinion of what has occurred in that part of the world.
Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia in December 2006, backed by the United States, sparked an Islamist resistance that led to thousands of civilian deaths, displaced over a million people, and depopulated the capital, Mogadishu. But instead of focusing on the aftermath of this crisis and helping foster a peace process, the United States, European Union, and other international actors are engaged in the more dramatic and media-friendly anti-piracy campaign....

While the pirates attract the lion's share of world attention, the Islamist militias are gaining ground and are sure to control the whole country once Ethiopia withdraws its troops. The conflict has spread to other parts of the region, with suicide bombings in the formerly stable Somaliland and Puntland regions, piracy in international waters, and cross-border kidnappings in Kenya.

U.S. and EU actions and policies since 2001 were supposed to prevent this kind of chaos. By treating Somalia and the region as a battle-zone in the "war on terror," however, the international community has made things worse....
Nesbett describes U.S. policy in the Bush years as "obdurate and counterproductive." The CIA backed the warlords, "setting the stage" for the rise of the "Islamic Courts", which in turn stoked the invasion of Ethiopia, in the name of the "war on terror." As we can see, even the North Koreans got into the act.

What a concoction of cynicism, ignorance, misdealing, and big power politics, with the Somali people the innocent victims! The media talk about piracy and dramatic sea rescues does not change the situation in that part of the world. In fact, if the chaos in Somalia, stirred up by the U.S. and Ethiopia, had not spilled into the world's sea lanes, then we most likely would not be talking about Somalia at all right now.

I can't take much from Obama's sign-off on the rescue of Capt. Phillips. I think the U.S. couldn't afford to let the captain of a U.S.-flagged ship (a rare enough thing in itself) be held hostage or killed. But what now of Somalia? Most likely it will slip off the front pages, and the excited recommended diaries at Daily Kos, and back into its state of forgotten misery, a pawn in the U.S. perpetual war on terror.

Nesbitt ends his article hopefully. I don't share his sense of hope, but will end here, too, because at the moment, even desperate hope may be all we have.
Obama's pledge to change the Bush administration's belligerent and counterproductive policies could have far-reaching consequences for the region as a whole.


Jim White said...

Promising words from SecDef Gates today:
--The pirates who kidnapped captain Richard Phillips, three of whom were killed by U.S. Navy snipers Sunday, were "untrained teenagers with heavy weapons," Gates told a group of 30 students and faculty members at the Marine Corps War College in Quantico, Va.

"There is no purely military solution to" piracy in the region, he added.

"As long as you've got this incredible number of poor people and the risks are relatively small, there's really no way in my view to control it unless you get something on land that begins to change the equation for these kids."

A Pentagon spokesman confirmed Gates' quotes, which were first reported by the American Forces Press Service.

Let's hope his more rational approach has some influence while others are calling for an invasion.

Valtin said...

Reading between the lines, I don't think the Pentagon has the stomach for more than flashy PR operations in the area right now, not while they are ramping up in Afghanistan.

Besides, they continue to use the Ethiopians as their proxies in the region. That and more practice with their Predator drones, perhaps.

Demeur said...

Three more ships/boats were hijacked today. The issue should now be addressed by the UN and all nations need to get involved. That's the short answer. The underlying causes need to be delt with but like you say there's too much going on to use other means.

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