Somalia: The Forever War


November 17, 2007: The UN has given up on Somalia, for now. There will be no peacekeeping force, with the plan to place 7,000 African peacekeepers in Mogadishu now a shambles. The only contingent of peacekeepers to arrive, 1,700 Ugandans, are holding the airport (their main means of re-supply and escape), and will probably be gone shortly. The years long attempt to craft a compromise between the clans and warlords, and form a government, has collapsed. Compromise is not a popular practice in Somalia, deceit and force are. Ethiopian troops will only stay in Mogadishu for as long as that seems to help keep Somali gunmen out of Ethiopia. For centuries, ethnic Somalis in the Ethiopian province of Ogaden, have periodically rebelled, and tried to assert their independence, or merger with Somalia (there rarely was a unified Somalia to merge with). Ethiopia does not allow this because an independent Ogaden becomes a base for raids into Ethiopia. It is, as the Ethiopians like to put it, a police matter. Ethiopian troops are fighting a recent uprising in Ogaden, and want to be sure that the Islamic Courts movement, which openly supported an uprising in Ogaden, does not rebuild itself and keep the Ogaden pot boiling.

Meanwhile, about ten percent of Mogadishu's population have fled in the past three weeks. The government continues to clear neighborhoods that support the Islamic Courts and Hawiye clan gunmen. There have been about a thousand casualties in that period, mostly terrorists and civilians. The government is making the point that each neighborhood has a choice; keep the gunmen out, or get shot at and forced to go live in a refugee camp. The government has also been cracking down on Hawiye clan leaders, accusing some of them of pretending to negotiate, while supporting the radicals who are sniping at the government and Ethiopian troops.

The humanitarian organizations are in a hopeless situation. Not only are the Somalis more inclined to fight, than negotiate, but getting aid to refugees is growing more difficult. There are an increasing number of armed groups that steal aid supplies, or extort "protection" payments or "taxes" from the aid groups. Attempts to hire local gunmen to provide security only works some of the time. The guards are often ineffective, and steal as well.

Along the coast, the pirates are now operating more cautiously. American warships have moved closer to the coast, and are persuading the pirates to free the ships they are holding. Recently, five of seven ships held by the pirates were freed. Ransom was paid in some cases, but the presence of U.S. warships is seen as a factor as well. Somalis along the coast believe that Somali-American sailors are contacting the pirates via radio and threatening commando attacks with Navy SEALs to free the ships, if the pirates don't leave. The SEALs have not been in the area since the early 1990s, but they have a fearsome reputation among Somalis. However, aside from firing 25mm cannon at several pirate speedboats tied up behind pirate-held ships, the American navy has mainly used their presence, and some radio chatter, against the pirates.

So what's going to happen? More of the same. The Somalis have been carrying on like this for centuries. During that time, a few warlords managed to cobble large parts of present day Somalia into temporary empires. But the normal state of the region is many armed groups fighting each other. This has been made easier by the presence of aid groups, which supply food, medical care and sundry loot to sustain the fighters. Normally, too much fighting, and an untimely drought, would shut down the violence for a while, as everyone was preoccupied with starvation and disease.


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