The world most Failed States. "Somalia"
1. SOMALIASomalia has topped the Failed States Index for the last three years -- a testament not only to the depth of the country's long-running political and humanitarian disaster, but also, as James Traub writes, to the international community's inability to find an answer. After two decades of chaos, the country is today largely under the control of Islamist militant groups, the most notorious and powerful of which is al-Shabab. A second faction, Hizbul Islam, rivals the former in brutality -- it recently executed two Somalis for the crime of watching the World Cup. Off the coast, pirates such as the men pictured here torment passing ships, often holding them hostage for a high price. In 2009, Somali pirates earned an estimated $89 million in ransom payments.
FSI score: 114.3 (out of 120)
FSI score: 114.3 (out of 120)
Why Somalia Matters
The “Black Hawk Down” battle of 1993 didn’t end U.S. involvement in Somalia. Far from it. In recent years, America has quietly fought a proxy war there in the name of anti-terrorism. The results have been dismal: insurgency, bloodshed, pirates.
Aside from the humanitarian suffering—thousands killed in Mogadishu’s fighting this past year, four million hungry—it is time we woke up to what else is unfolding in Somalia. The world allowed Afghanistan to fester in brutal isolation until 2001, and look what came to pass. In Somalia, organized crime and Islamist extremism have been incubating for years. Now they threaten to metastasize globally, Afghanistan-style. George W. Bush’s policies in Africa’s Horn have been disastrous. But events on the ground provide the U.S. president-elect, Barack Obama, with fresh opportunities.
When Somalia collapsed, in 1991, the end of the Cold War left it awash in weaponry, but strategically it was devalued real estate. Things degenerated into tribal bloodletting. A friend in Mogadishu called it “geno-suicide,” but since it had no impact on Western interests, nobody lifted a finger to help. Then 300,000 children starved to death. Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton sent troops to rescue and feed famine victims. Those troops were swiftly sucked into a feud with warlord militias that culminated in the 1993 battle described by Mark Bowden in his book Black Hawk Down: two American helicopters were shot down, 18 soldiers were killed, and at least one of the dead Americans was dragged through the streets by angry mobs. After that, nation-building efforts were abandoned. Somalia was so unimportant that, after the Americans left, C.I.A. files were discovered dumped in the Mogadishu airport’s departure lounge.Even the bombing of U.S. embassies in East Africa by a Somalia-based al-Qaeda cell failed to revive America’s interest. By 9/11, the U.S. had such inadequate intelligence and policy resources that it was forced to rely on regional ally Ethiopia for an off-the-peg strategy. A series of misadventures followed, culminating in a rogue C.I.A. effort to bolster the power of bloodthirsty warlords in Mogadishu simply because they were “anti-terrorist.” Henceforth, America’s objectives in Somalia—a country of 9.5 million—were to be framed around the hunt for the East African embassy bombers, a handful of individuals.
Horrified, the local citizenry backed a takeover of Mogadishu, in mid-2006, by Islamists with a Taliban-like vanguard force known as Al-Shabaab (the Youth). The militants ruled for six months, and I saw them stamp out rampant crime, including piracy. They opened trade routes and revived the economy. Diaspora Somalis returned in droves. Somalis are generally moderate Muslims. Ordinary folk swiftly became disillusioned by puritanical bans on music, World Cup football matches on TV, dancing at weddings—even cell-phone ringtones that were “un-Islamic.” What I witnessed in Mogadishu suggested that Somalis were moving toward a rejection of extremism. But just as that process was advancing, Jendayi Fraser, the U.S. State Department’s top official for Africa, claimed that Somalia’s Islamists were “controlled by al-Qaeda,” and ruled out negotiations.
Already involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, America chose to pursue a proxy war in Africa’s Horn. When U.S.-backed Ethiopian forces invaded Mogadishu, two years ago, they immediately sparked a vicious insurgency. Fighting has since claimed more than 10,000 civilian lives. The already war-damaged capital has been reduced to ruins. Most of the city’s one million citizens have fled to refugee camps. U.S. air strikes have killed perhaps two high-value terrorist targets while swelling the insurgent ranks with a new generation of Somali militants.
On the ground, reports abound that foreign jihadis from Pakistan and Iraq are also pouring into Somalia. They have imported the faddish technology of jihad—I.E.D.’s, suicide bombers, even the decapitation of hostages on video. A small gang of fugitive, Somalia-based al-Qaeda operatives has expanded into an army. The very nightmare Washington sought to avoid has become reality.
Bizarrely, al-Shabaab militants are the only forces in Somalia that have vowed to stamp out piracy. The Western-backed government of President Abdullahi Yusuf claims it can do little—but that is because our “allies” have links to the pirates themselves through their clans. Ministers, former police chiefs, and mayors from among the president’s clans are the pirates’ godfathers and investors. In some ports, pirates pay the salaries of police forces who were formerly trained and equipped with Western funds.
Piracy on the high seas simply reflects what happens on dry land. In Mogadishu earlier this year I found a Western-supported government that was rotten to the core. Victims claimed that instead of arresting terrorists, the intelligence services held civilians in dungeons and extorted ransoms from their families. The police did the same, with senior officers behaving like warlords. Government and insurgent forces traded heavy artillery fire in civilian districts with devastating consequences. Humanitarian-aid supplies were pillaged. Incredibly, I discovered that leaders on both sides in this conflict migrate between the killing fields of Somalia and Western countries. The reason: they hold European Union or U.S. passports. Increasingly, so do the pirates.
Al Shabaab militants who have seized much of southern Somalia are now on the brink of overwhelming Mogadishu. Ethiopian forces are edging toward withdrawal, together with a beleaguered force of African peacekeepers. If the jihadi militants succeed in Mogadishu, it will be the first time an al-Qaeda ally has controlled a country since the Taliban in Afghanistan before 2001. This time, their foreign agenda could be both more organized and more aggressive against the outside world. More moderate factions among Islamists and in President Abdullahi Yusuf’s government could still reach a compromise—excluding both al-Qaeda cohorts and Western-backed gangsters. Negotiations between the moderates are ongoing.
That process attracts scant international interest, but it provides an opportunity for incoming President Obama and his chosen secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. For seven years, the Bush administration has exacerbated conflict in Somalia by focusing on anti-terror operations to the detriment of diplomatic and humanitarian concerns. This strategy has failed, leaving Somalia severely traumatized. The road to recovery is fraught with peril, but now is the time for a more balanced, humane policy. This means investing resources in Somali-led peace initiatives rather than in ones imposed from abroad. There is no real international appetite for a peacekeeping military intervention on the scale needed, and, based on earlier failures, it might not even be wise to pursue such a course. That leaves diplomacy. Ultimately, the only way to prevent Somalia from becoming a home to terrorists is to restore the rule of law.
We must try, however long it takes. Pretending Somalia doesn’t exist is no longer an option.
Article courtesy of Aidan Hartley columnist for The Spectator and the author of The Zanzibar Chest, a best-selling book about his experiences covering African conflicts for Reuters. He lives in Kenya.