Somalia, when the US tried to ‘save’ the country from Somalis


Last week I wrote an article describing how food aid has wrought havoc on Somalia’s economy for nearly four decades, and why policies of neoliberal humanitarian agencies and the corrupt semblance of a Somali government they work with have left millions of people in starvation. This week I’ll give a brief history of the country since 1969, when Siad Barre came to power. It is important to know, however, that both the Italians and British colonized Somalia, creating artificial boundaries and dividing its territory in two until the country formed and gained independence in 1960.

On October 15th, 1969, one of the body guards of Somali President Abdirashid Ali Shermarke shot and killed his employer. In the ensuing days of uncertainty, the military staged a coup and suspended the constitution, and on October 21st, General Mohammed Siad Barre rose as President of Somalia and head of the Somali Revolutionary Council. From the beginning of his reign, Barre consolidated links with the Soviet Union and established a national policy called “scientific socialism,” which included the nationalization of farms and industry and government oversight of agricultural production, as well as rapid militarization and the use OF East-German trained security forces to quell discontent._ Barre’s government also helped create a written Somali language using the Latin alphabet, and set up a literacy campaign throughout the country. His original rhetoric was distinctly anti-clan, and he attempted to stamp out Somalia’s patronage system and replace it with Somali nationalism.

Barre reached the height of his popularity in 1977, when the Somali army captured Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, partially fulfilling nationalist ambitions of a “Greater Somalia.” But with the Soviets now sponsoring Ethiopia after the Communist Derg seized power in a coup in 1974, Cuban and Ethiopian forces successfully pushed the Somali army back into its own territory. By 1978, the Ogaden War was over and Ethiopia were the victors. Thousands of refugees flooded Somalia, sparking a humanitarian crisis. Barre’s popularity felt the loss’s repercussions, and he turned to his clan, the Marehan (a sub-clan of the Darod) for legitimacy.

With the new Soviet presence in Ethiopia, which under Haile Selassie had been a US ally for decades, the Americans needed a new base of activity to repel Soviet expansion. Barre, in a swift political maneuver, courted the Americans into giving military and political aid, and the US eventually established a military base at an abandoned Soviet base in Berbera, northwest Somalia (now the breakaway republic of Somaliland) in 1984.

With hundreds of thousands of refugees in the country and the US (and by proxy, the West) backing his regime, Barre took advantage of another constituency to keep him in power: international aid groups and NGOs. Barre deftly manipulated the aid groups by controlling distribution of food aid to refugees, which were mostly from his own Darod clan.

American interest in Somalia faded but did not collapse as the Cold War came to a close. The US continued to support Barre militarily and politically, even as his regime fell apart at the seams. By this point, Barre had become a ruthless dictator whose patronage for the Darod clan was only matched by his mistreatment of the Isaaq clan of north and northwest Somalia. A number of separatists groups sprung up, and some were marginally successful in challenging Barre’s rule. After an Isaaq-led rebel group (the Somali National Movement or SNM) took Hargeisa and Burao in 1988, the Somali armed forces responded vehemently with air strikes and ground combat that, after eighteen months of civil war, killed more than 50,000 civilians.

By 1990, the state was a fraction of its former self. The largest and most powerful rebel group, the United Somali Congress (USC) had captured Puntland and was approaching Mogadishu. On January 26th, 1991, the USC successfully ousted Barre from power in Mogadishu and set up an interim presidency, while the SNM in the northwest unilaterally declared the independence of Somaliland._ For the next year Barre’s forces fought the USC throughout the country but especially in the capital, razing fertile agricultural land and demolishing Mogadishu.

Since the collapse of the Barre regime in 1991, no group has been able to bring all of Somalia under its administrative control and the country has been embroiled in multiple civil wars while coming under attack from foreign forces (namely the US) multiple times. The US and the UN undertook military operations in Somalia from 1992 to 1994 under the name “Operation Restore Hope” after the state had collapsed in 1991. Operation Restore Hope’s stated objective was to guarantee the safe passage of humanitarian aid into Somalia, and a US-led team entered Mogadishu in December 1992.

The American president at the time, George H.W. Bush, pitched the intervention as motivated by a humanitarian agenda. The US, whose existence as the world’s sole superpower after the dissolution of the USSR thrust the country to foreign policy supremacy, declared that it would save the Somalis from themselves. Food aid theft had become an endemic problem, and the only way to ensure that aid would reach its target beneficiaries was a strong military presence. If the US and UN humanitarian mission worked to find a viable solution to Somalia’s woes, it would have set a precedent for American intervention worldwide. Indeed, the mission was seen as a success at first—Clinton declared in 1993 that it had “saved hundreds of thousands of innocent Somalis from starvation and gave that nation a chance to build its own future.”_ A more nuanced account put the number of lives saved from famine between 10,000 and 25,000.

In spite of Bush and Clinton’s rhetoric, some argue that the US entered Somalia when the famine was actually in decline and prospects for peace were real._ American Marines were given a limited mandate, which proved to be inhibiting when rebel forces overtook the port town of Kismayo while the US stood idly by._ Nevertheless, even if the mission was successful in clearing the path for refugee aid, this objective was no more helpful toward the re-establishment of a viable Somali state than USAID relief efforts had been the previous ten years. With no political plans for the future, American intervention became bogged down in the same problems the relief agencies faced, and they came up with essentially the same solution—give Somalia a poorly administered band aid. The only difference was that the military solution involved US and UN-sponsored violence.

After the mission in Somalia came under full control of the UN and became UNOSOM II in May 1993, American and UN forces used force to pursue General Hussein Farah Aydiid, the powerful warlord who was seen as the biggest obstacle for UNOSOM._ It is during this pursuit that Marines committed what scholar Alex de Waal calls “war crimes” against the Somali people, including an attack on a hospital in Mogadishu and the bombing of a residential building that killed at least 54 people, many of whom were clan elders._ The most well-known attack occurred on October 3rd, which left 18 Marines dead._ This attack, thanks to its romantic depiction in the Hollywood thriller “Black Hawk Down,” is perhaps the most recognizable event in Somali history to people around the globe. What many do not know, however is that between 200-500 Somalis—the vast majority innocent civilians—were killed by American troops that day. These attacks, among many others, only served to galvanize Somalis in opposition to foreign intervention and strengthen the power of warlords like Aydiid.

While the northern half of Somalia has become relatively stabilized by the advancement of two autonomous regions—Puntland in the northeast and Somaliland in the northwest—the southern regions have remained mired in chaotic civil war. The closest any political group came to achieving a cohesive national government in control of the territory of Somalia was the Union of Islamic Courts, a coalition of Muslim legal bodies, traditional leaders and armed groups that fought a protracted war against US-backed warlords and won most of the country and the broad support of the Somali people by 2006. Somalia’s neighbor Ethiopia, governed by neoliberal dictator Meles Zenawi and whose army is funded by the US, promptly sent 15,000 to 20,000 troops to invade Somalia (according to Reuters) and overthrow the Islamic Courts government for its “ties to Al-Qaeda.”

The Ethiopian troops—funded and guided by the US from the American military base in neighboring Djibouti, which, like Mindanao in the Philippines, is home to a Joint Task Force of Special Operating Forces—proceeded to wipe out the popular Somali government and commit severe human rights abuses including multiple massacres and serial rapes while doing so. By 2007, the Ethiopians had pushed the Islamic Courts Union to the rural areas, effectively dislodging them from power in most of the country. Since then, the radical and semi-fascist youth group of the Union similar to the Taliban, Al-Shabaab, has risen to be the most formidable political power in the nation, taking back much of the country the Courts Union lost in its fight against the corrupt and ineffective US and UN-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The US, realizing its severe tactical error in wiping out the popular and effective Courts Union, has tried to coopt its former members by installing the leader most suitable to US interests, Sheik Sharif Ahmed, as the head of the TFG. The current TFG controls only a few neighborhoods of the capital, Mogadishu and yet is buttressed by thousands of African Union “peacekeepers.”

Somalia is the only country in the world without a state. Although the reasons for this are extremely complex and involve both Somali and foreign culprits, as evidenced by nearly two and a half decades of intervention and conflict, the US has proven to be a major destabilizing force in the country.(

1 Hutchison, R.A. (Ed.). Fighting for Survival etc, based on study by Spooner, B.C. and Walsh, N. Geneva: IUCN, 1991. p. 82._2 Ibid, p. 83._3 Maren, Michael. The Road to Hell: The ravaging effects of foreign aid and international charity. 2nd. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1997. p. 36._4 Hutchison, p. 84._5 Ibid, p. 85._6 Maren p. 283_7 United Nations Operation in Somalia UNOSOM I Maren 216_9 De Waal, Alex. U.S. War Crimes in Somalia (1998)_10 see Maren (1997), de Waal (1998, 2003), Ahmed and Green (1999)._11 De Waal, Alex. U.S. War Crimes in Somalia (1998)_12 Maren 222_13 De Waal, Alex. U.S. War Crimes in Somalia (1998)_14 Ibid_

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  1. In your article you talked about rebel groups and Barre’s patronage to the Darod clan. The first to oppose Barre after 1977 was lost was the rebel group Somali Salvation Democratic Front or SSDF also a Darod dominated rebel and is the backbone of Puntland army today. SSDF operated out of Ethiopia and was later joined by SNM & USC. SSDF commander Abdullahi Yusuf was the President of Somali prior to Sharriff Ahmed.

  2. The author of this article mixed facts with fallacies which likened him to be partisan, biased and proponent of typical clan-sentiments that destroyed Somalia. The Islamic Courts that seem to be glorifying begot the Al-Shabab, Ahlul Sunnah, Hizbul Islam and other organizations that are party to the current mayhem. To correct him, that statement that “Barre had become a ruthless dictator whose patronage for the Darod clan was only matched by his mistreatment of the Isaaq clan of north and northwest Somalia” is not only an anomaly, but a sick statement. Many Darod clans were the victims of the Barre’s reign. The People of Puntland (Darod) were the worst victims of his rule and initiated the first armed resistance against Barre’s rule. In another note, the author mentioned that USC captured Puntland which is unheard of. Who provided him this wrong information?
    It really hurts any sane-thinking Somali to see an outsider promoting clannish fallacies in a country that is still reeling under effects of clan-based strife.
    Dear author, for God’s sake withdrew your erring article and re-edit or discard it.
    Abdirahman O Warsame

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