Somalia: A History of US Interventions


There’s a woman — some call her “Black Hawk Down” lady — who lives in a packed, squalid neighborhood in the middle of Mogadishu and runs a rather simple but grisly museum.  For under a dollar, visitors can view her prized possession, the mangled, mud-splattered nose of a US Black Hawk helicopter that was shot down during the American intervention in Somalia thirteen years ago.  The wreckage, quite popular among Somalis and foreigners alike, serves as a macabre memento of the decades of civil war that have raged on Somali soil.  But more than anything, this strange little museum in the heart of Mogadishu reminds one of the constant, often disastrous foreign interventions into Somali affairs.  As US-backed Ethiopian troops occupy Mogadishu and American helicopters fire at targets in southern Somalia, the time is ripe for a reexamination of the US role in the region.

The Mayor of Mogadishu

American involvement in Somalia began as early as World War II, when the US rejected the British-sponsored consolidation of all areas with Somali majority (including the Ethiopian territory of Ogaden, but excluding areas in northern Kenya, then under British control) into a Somali state.  The US, eager to protect the territory and rule of their strong ally Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, instead fashioned a partitioningthat has defined the politics of the region ever since.  Eritrea was placed under federation with Ethiopia, while Somalis were dispersed among Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and the Republic of Somalia, which gained independence in 1960.  The consequences were calamitous; Eritrea’s amalgamation with Ethiopia sparked an increasingly bloody thirty-year battle for independence, while the goal of a Greater Somalia fueled rapacious irredentist wars over the next fifty years.

With unwavering US support of Selassie’s monarchy in Ethiopia, the USSR increasingly turned towards Somalia, and the Horn of Africa became a critical theater for the Cold War.  Siad Barre’s coup in 1969 ushered in “scientific socialism” and attracted even more Soviet assistance, and in 1975 the US lost influence in Ethiopia following the overthrow of Haile Selassie and the monarchy.  By the late Seventies, the Russians shifted support away from Somalia and began underwriting Mengistu’s brutal regime in Ethiopia.  No sooner had the Russians left than the US sought to bring Somalia into its sphere.

The Carter administration was quick to declare that Somalia should become “a friend.”  Befriending Somalia, however, meant supporting the severely repressive Barre regime, with its dismal human rights record and penchant for causing regional wars.  Barre packed the government with members of his Mareheen clan, tortured and summarily executed opponents, silenced critics, outlawed opposition parties, crushed freedom of the press, and employed a feared secret police.  Barre also exacerbated existing clan divisions by habitually playing various clans off one another.

Carter easily forgot the rhetoric of being a “human rights president” whenever strategic interests were involved.  Somalia, a sparsely populated desert nation with few natural resources, nonetheless lies in a vitally strategic position at the mouth of the Red Sea.  The port of Berbera overlooks sea routes between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.  US presence in Berbera, together with the southern port of Kismayu, would ensure control over the flow of Mid East oil.  Moreover, American officials understood that the Somali ports could provide key bases in the attempt to neutralize nearby Soviet presence and defend US interests in the Persian Gulf (indeed, Berbera was used as an intermediate deployment base during the first Gulf War).  Carter pledged military and financial aid in return for control of Berbera and other bases.  Foreign multinationals, including four major oil companies, were quick to win concessions.  The US, fearing a direct confrontation with Soviet troops, also insisted that Barre withdraw Soviet troops from Ogaden in Ethiopia, which became a sticking point in Somali-US negotiations.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran and the concomitant loss of a base in the Indian Ocean convinced officials to finalize the deal; thus one of the Reagan Administration’s first acts was to move US troops and weapons into Berbera and send over $40 million in military aid to the Barre government.  Somalia quickly became a US client state.  In subsequent years the US delivered an average of $80 million in economic and military aid per year (through 1987), topping $115 million in 1984 and 1985.  Somalia became one of the leading recipients of US military assistance in all of Africa in the eighties, and received almost $700 million in overall aid during the decade.  In addition to US support, Barre enjoyed assistancefrom Italy, West Germany, China, and South Africa.  Barre employed much of this aid to fight Ethiopia over the Ogaden region and to suppress resistance movements within the country.  He used massive aerial bombardment of the north to crush Somali resistance fighters, killing and displacing thousands in the process.  However, Barre was unable to contain the growing insurgency, fueled by widespread hatred of his regime.  Moreover, by the late eighties, Somalia’s strategic importance began to wane as Moscow’s influence in the region decreased and Saudi and Egyptian compliance with the US increased.  By 1990, Barre had almost no support inside or outside the country, except for continued American logistical support, small-scale economic support, and military training.  The extent of the rebellion and civil war was so widespread that Barre had little authority outside of the capital Mogadishu, an ignominious fact that earned him the derisory moniker “the Mayor of Mogadishu.”  Barre’s power slipped rapidly, and he was finally overthrown by a coalition of guerilla groups in early 1991.  Somalia has not seen a central government since.

Black Hawk Down

The Somalia of US and Barre’s creation was one of shambles.  It was a nation of refugees, with over 40% of the population classified as such at any given time.  The country’s political structure was nonexistent, with bandits and guerillas roaming and controlling the lawless countryside.  Inflation soared, the formal economy collapsed, and there was no national banking system to speak of.  Most of the population owned weapons and were ready to pledge allegiance to whichever forces could provide stability and protection.  Clan divisions, which Barre so ruthlessly exploited, gave birth to independent and armed factions fighting for regional and local control.  By 1992, widespread famine and drought devastated the country.  Years of economic mismanagement, cronyism, graft, war, and repression, under Barre’s direction and with the sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit support of the US, had taken their toll.  Yet, with the Western media dutifully supplying decontextualized images of emaciated Somali children, the US began the steady drumbeat of intervention.  The worst of the famine and drought passed in the summer, and the situation steadily improved towards the close of the year.  Nonetheless, in December 1992, Washington launched “Operation Restore Hope,” with the mandate of “creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian relief.”  And thus began the US’s greatest military defeat in twenty years.

The intervention in Somalia, together with the first Gulf War, was actually the opening salvo of a battle of a different kind.  This was a battle against the prevalent public perception, since Vietnam, that US force should be used sparingly, if at all.  The Somali intervention marked the first in a series of “humanitarian interventions,” designed to render open, substantial intervention and even war once again fit for public consumption.  Indeed, as then Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense for Africa Affairs revealed, a plan for a smaller, more aid-oriented intervention was scrapped because “it failed to meet the US military’s new insistence on the application of massive, overwhelming force.”  Intervention would also provide a sorely needed stability for US business interests in the region, especially the four major oil companies with concessions in the country.  Sure enough, during the US stay in Somalia the new US embassy operated from the compounds of oil multinational Conoco.

The Americans, connected in many Somalis’ minds with the detested Barre dictatorship, did little to win friends.  In June of 1993, US and UN forces attacked a civilian hospital with over 500 occupants.  In July, US helicopters fired into a meeting of political, religious, and clan leaders, killing 54.  In September, American forces opened fire into a crowd, killing over 50 civilians.  Other UN troops’ hands were unclean as well.  Belgian soldiers engaged in hundreds of incidents of rape, torture, and murder.  Canadian troops frequently used unnecessary force, killing scores of civilians.  Malaysian, Pakistani, French, Nigerian, and Tunisian forces were all accused of vandalism, property destruction, and civilian attacks.  It is only in this context that the famous events of 3 October, where eighteen US rangers were killed and one captured, are sensible.  The violent Somali reaction, flashed across television screens worldwide and later fictionalized in Black Hawk Down, was built upon a searing hatred for repeated US and international intervention in local affairs.  What the news clips failed to show, however, was the Americans’ disproportionably violent reaction in which hundreds of Somalis were murdered.

The War on Terror

US intervention in Somalia ended in disaster for all sides concerned; as American forces sped away from Somalia, tail firmly between legs, Somalia continued its precipitous descent into anarchy and chaos.  Various warlords and clans parceled Somalia between themselves, and civilians often bore the brunt of internecine fighting.  In 1999, the most influential warlords made the first attempts at forming a national transitional government (TNG); Ethiopia (and by extension, the US) withdrew support, however, and soon the effort lost its feet.  Ethiopians preferred to support a transitional government in which it could play a more influential role, and after 2000 Addis Ababa and Washington both supported the rival Somalia Restoration and Reconciliation Council (SRRC).

Under Siad Barre’s tightly controlled regime, mosques and religious figures were often the only source of uncensored information.  Under such conditions the population turned increasingly to political Islam, and, by the mid-eighties, al Ittihad al Islami established themselves as the foremost Islamist organization.  By the mid-nineties, a warlord alliance headed by Abdilliahi Yusef and Ethiopia (anxious to quell its own restive Muslim population) succeeded in partially crushing al Ittihad.  In the process, parts of al Itthad dissolved into a series of independent Islamic courts, courts that would — under the banner of law and order — eventually unify as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and take power in June of 2006.  Yusef, on the other hand, began a long and fruitful collaboration with Ethiopia and the US.  Yusef was at the head of an Ethiopian-backed effort to unite the TNG, SRRC, and other factions, culminating in the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) of 2004.

The US, for its part, views Somalia as a major theatre of the War on Terror.  When a group of regional warlords with a sense of marketability formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), the US was quick to provide funding.  The Bush administration has frequently levied the charge that the UIC has ties to al Qaeda, an accusation that the warlords are only too happy to trumpet.  The US-backed ARPCT fought in bloody clashes with the UIC in May of 2006, leaving hundreds dead.  The UIC managed to capture Mogadishu in June, and almost immediately UIC leaders accused Ethiopian troops of crossing the border.  The US began to meet regularly with Ethiopian officials and by late 2006 gave the go-ahead for the Ethiopian invasion and occupation of Somalia, with Yusef’s TFG as the sponsored government.  The TFG has an extremely weak base in Somalia, most notably in the capital city, and most likely cannot survive without direct Ethiopian intervention and indirect US support (a fact which Yusef clearly recognizes — he is demanding that Ethiopian troops remain in Somalia for months).

As US AC-130s target suspected al Qaeda fighters in southern Somalia and scores lie dead in the bombers’ wake, Somalis’ oppression under imperialism and misgovernment seems destined to play on repeat.  Moreover, Washington’s repeated overtures to the least popular in Somalia — dictators like Barre and warlords like Yusef — ensure that anti-Americanism will continue to do well in Somali hearts and minds.  As the US strives to make Somalia safe for multinationals, the Somali horizon looks bleak indeed.  But perhaps some will find a silver lining; deep in the heart of Mogadishu, the Black Hawk Down lady will continue to have steady profits, and possibly even more souvenirs, for years to come.

Anand Gopal is a doctoral student in physics at the University of Pennsylvania.

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