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The Truth about Somalia and the U.S.

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  • The Truth about Somalia and the U.S.

    Hollywood's War Risks Real Thing

    Africa Action (Washington,DC)
    January 28, 2002
    Posted to the web January 28, 2002

    By Salih Booker
    Washington, DC

    With speculation growing that Somalia may be the next target in the U.S. war on terrorism, last week’s nationwide release of "Black Hawk Down" is actually dangerous. Hollywood’s hottest new war film may come to substitute for serious analysis and add momentum to the specious rationale for U.S. intervention in that abandoned land.

    The film’s depiction of the 1993 U.S. military operation in Somalia, in which eighteen U.S. Rangers lost their lives, dramatizes a painful episode in U.S. history but nearly turns it on its head. What was a misguided mission to defeat one of the militia leaders in Somalia’s civil war became tragic in its failure. But it is now retold as a story of glory and personal courage, that denies the larger reality and makes light of the slaughter of an estimated 1,000 Somalis.

    The failure of the movie to provide important context on the U.S. role in Somalia, and its dehumanization of the Somali people, can only reinforce the American disregard for the fate of this devastated land. Unknown to most Americans, Somalia’s devastation, like that of Afghanistan, is deeply intertwined with Washington’s Cold War policies.

    Somalia was a Cold War pawn, supported first by the Soviets and then by the U.S. after neighboring Ethiopia declared itself Marxist in 1974. From the late 1970s until his ousting in 1991, the U.S. wholeheartedly supported Somali dictator Siad Barre, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in military and economic aid to his corrupt and repressive regime in return for access to strategic air and naval facilities along the Somali coast. America’s militarization of Somalia during the Cold War, and its blind support of a destructive despot, did great damage to Somalia and did little to endear the U.S. to its people. As the state collapsed in the early 1990s, the intense rivalry among Somalia’s clans, which Barre had fostered, with U.S. support, turned into civil war.

    The initial U.S. military intervention in 1992 may have had some success in easing Somalia’s humanitarian crisis of war-induced famine, but it did nothing to end the conflict that Washington had helped set in motion. After the deaths of the U.S. Rangers in 1993, the U.S. quickly retreated from Somalia, seeing neither compelling interests nor historical obligations for addressing its breakdown. With the U.S. withdrawal, the international community turned its back on Somalia and left it to its turmoil. In this sense, the "Black Hawk" mission’s larger consequence was not only the abandonment of Somalia but of the whole concept of post-Cold War international cooperation on conflict resolution and nation-building. The debacle in Mogadishu came to symbolize the supposed futility of international peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance in poor war-torn countries.

    Somalia has been a decade without effective government control, its economy and infrastructure lie in ruins, and much of the country remains divided by factional strife. Suddenly, U.S. officials now profess grave concern about the lack of centralized government in Somalia, and the implications this may have had for U.S. and international security. They fear that this Muslim state, with its militarized and fractious society, may provide a hospitable environment to Al-Qaeda terrorists fleeing Afghanistan.

    Without credible supporting evidence, the U.S. has begun to target Somalia in its anti-terrorism campaign. In late September, the Bush Administration added the Somali Al-Itihaad Al-Islamiya ("Islamic Union") movement to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. In November, U.S. officials closed down Al- Barakaat, the largest money transfer company used by Somalis abroad to send money home, accusing it of funneling money on behalf of Bin Laden’s network. This closure of the country’s single largest employer dealt a severe blow to Somalia’s impoverished population, the majority of whom depend on remittances for survival. In recent weeks, the U.S. has increased military and surveillance activities in and around Somalia, and there is increasing media speculation that an attack on alleged terrorist camps in Somalia is imminent.

    Somalia appears to be an easy target in the U.S. war on terrorism, but it is the wrong target. The U.S. claim that it may provide safe haven for Al- Qaeda terrorists is too reliant upon facile assumptions about the security situation and the assertions of interested neighbors and internal groups opposed to the Transitional Government in Mogadishu.

    Somalia has been devastated by a decade of lawlessness, and its current attempts to achieve a fragile stability with a new government should be supported. Blinkered vision that disregarded local realities led to disaster once in Somalia; repeating the same mistake would be ludicrous and would surely sow the seeds of further alienation and insecurity. Let there be no more Black Hawks Down.