Somalia: Death and despair the 'benefits' of war on terror

January 12, 2007

In what seems to be becoming a signature atrocity of US President George Bush's "war on terror", US air strikes hit a Somali wedding ceremony, according to a January 10 BBC Online report. Up to 31 people were killed. The BBC quoted the account of an elder in Banka-Jiira, a grazing area, who told the news service's Somali branch: "There have been air strikes carried out by American planes in these areas since Sunday. Here in the Banka-Jiira area, which is the largest grazing area in the Juba Valley region, we have been hard hit. There have been several air strikes over nearby Booji grazing area too. The most unfortunate incident was an attack on a big wedding ceremony …

"We do not have the figures of the dead animals as a result of the air strikes but they are very many livestock that have been killed by the bombs. And on Tuesday morning, a man who has lost a limb was brought in for treatment at Banka-Jiira's health centre. A driver in his car has also been blown up in the attack." The British Guardian reported on January 9 that according to the Somali government, aerial strafing by a US AC130 of the village of Hayo had left "many dead".

Ethiopia intervened in Somalia in late July, with Reuters reporting that about 5000 Ethiopian troops had entered the country with the goal of crushing the Islamic Courts Union (ICU). On December 13, the wire service reported ICU claims that some 30,000 Ethiopian troops were in the country.

In addition to the air strikes, reports have emerged of US ground forces aiding the Ethiopian assault that drove the ICU from Mogadishu on December 28 and, in theory at least, gave Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) control over the capital and most of the country for the first time. A report by US ABC's Alexis Debat claimed US and French military sources admitted that US special forces, "including a significant CIA presence", were working with Ethiopian troops, operating out of Camp Le Monier, in Djibouti.

According to an October 23 article by William Church, director of the Great Lakes Centre for Strategic Studies, the US government shipped some US$19 million worth of weapons to Ethiopia in 2005 and 2006. Church added that there have been "reports of direct military equipment support through Select Armor, a Private Military Company (PMC) based in Virginia".

Possibility of peace?

The ousting of the ICU has been greeted with glee by most partisans of Bush's "war on terror", claiming that it has denied members of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda a "safe haven" (al Qaeda members accused of bombing US embassies and an Israeli-owned hotel are alleged to be hiding out in Somalia) and offered Somalis the possibility of peace.

A typical approach is a January 10 Wall Street Journal article titled "No exit in Somalia". It argued that after the 1993 withdrawal of US forces from Somalia, the country "descended into anarchy and became a haven for al Qaeda operatives and affiliated terrorist groups". No-one would dispute the characterisation of the kind of bloody chaos that gripped Somalia, but almost totally absent from the article is an acknowledgement that many of those responsible for the worst violence were US-funded and -armed warlords. It notes only that "the U.S. can … offer meaningful logistical, military and humanitarian assistance to the Transitional Federal Government, which the CIA previously eschewed in favor of financing local warlords", giving little sense of the misery inflicted on Somalis by those warlords.

The TFG has existed largely as a hollow shell, unable to even enter the capital (it has been based in Baidoa, 240 kilometres north-west of Mogadishu), and without a base of popular support. Significant warlords in Mogadishu — who John Predergast, a member of the International Crisis Group, told MSNBC on June 5 were receiving between $100,000 and $150,000 per month from the CIA — formed part of the TFG's cabinet until June last year. In response to the ICU's rise, the warlords put a halt to their fighting and formed the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism when their grip on Mogadishu was challenged. The ICU eventually took power on June 5.

A January 4 article in the London Times argued that the ousting of the ICU "is Somalia's first piece of potentially good news in two devastating decades". But even the author, Rosemary Righter, was forced to acknowledge the "intolerant but effective order the courts imposed on Mogadishu after ejecting the warlords in June", but claimed this "gave an impression that was ultimately misleading. It impressed both Somalis and outsiders, yet they never unveiled an agenda for the country as a whole, or showed interest in reconciling Somalis."

In the same piece she hails the TFG finally coming to power but acknowledges it is essentially a farcical shell of a government and noted that "Somalis, who fought two wars with Ethiopia over the Ogaden desert, will not readily see their old enemy as a saviour". But by "acting when the UN and the African Union could come up with nothing but paper plans, the Ethiopians have given this wretched failed state a chance". In an article in the same paper four days later, Martin Fletcher responded: "As one of the few journalists who has visited Mogadishu recently, I beg to differ. The good news came in June. That is when the courts routed the warlords who had turned Somalia into the world's most anarchic state during a 15-year civil war that left a million dead.

"I am no apologist for the courts. Their leadership included extremists with dangerous intentions and connections. But for six months they achieved the near-impossible feat of restoring order to a country that appeared ungovernable."

When the ICU came to power it was with a popular base of support, and many Mogidishu residents expressed a cautious optimism. While some worried about the undoubtedly reactionary social policies of some of the ICU forces, many were glad to see an end to the US-funded bloody chaos of warlord rule. The courts, the first of which was established in 1994 after the withdrawal of US troops, are considered to be ideologically variegated, and some figures in the ICU have been linked to al Qaeda. However, to describe the ICU as an "al Qaeda affiliate", as some commentators have done, is misleading. Some reporters even claim links to Somali Islamist groups that are widely considered to have been disbanded.

The ICU's initial role of making legal rulings broadened to policing duties and providing social welfare to residents of the war-ravaged capital, developing a support base among Mogadishu residents. An analysis by Dr Michael Weinstein for the Power and Interest News Report in May, the month before the ICU took power, argued: "The courts have become increasingly popular with Mogadishu's residents, not only because of their [legal and social] services, but also because they are perceived to be relatively honest and dedicated to the country, rather than to their own narrow advantage, and are not beholden to external powers.

"The eruption of militant political Islamism outside and opposed to the TFG, and the Mogadishu warlords and rising over the clan structure provoked a fierce reaction among the warlords, whose vital interests were threatened."

US oil interests

Incessant warlord violence has been a feature of Somalia since US-backed dictator Mohammed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991. In 1992, 20,000 US troops were dispatched to Somalia. Ostensibly the troops were a UN "humanitarian intervention", but a January 18, 1993, report in the Los Angeles Times revealed that US oil corporations Conoco, Amoco, Chevron and Phillips had been allocated massive oil exploration rights by Barre. Symbolic of the driving motives behind the US intervention was Conoco allowing its Mogadishu compound to be used as a de facto US embassy.

The LA Times reported that in Somalia, "four major US oil companies are quietly sitting on a prospective fortune in exclusive concessions to explore and exploit tens of millions of acres of the Somali countryside. That land, in the opinion of geologists and industry sources, could yield significant amounts of oil and natural gas if the US-led military mission can restore peace to the impoverished east African nation."

The disastrous (for the US) "Battle of Mogadishu", depicted in Black Hawk Down, spelled the end of the US direct military intervention in Somalia, for the '90s at least. But Somalia and its economic and strategic importance have remained on the US ruling class's agenda.

Back in February 2002, William Kristol, chairperson of the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century and editor Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, testified before the US Senate's Foreign Relations Committee on "What's next in the war on terrorism?" Kristol's answer was "Iraq", but he also flagged other targets further down the track, including noting that the "trail [allegedly of al Qaeda] is also likely to lead into Somalia and elsewhere in Africa".

On April 13, 2004, the influential American Enterprise Institute hosted "Leave No Continent Behind: U.S. National Security Interests in Africa", a conference that drew the usual collection of US government officials, ruling class intellectuals and corporate representatives (including ChevronTexaco Exploration's president, George Kirkland).

The AEI's blurb for the conference stated that "Al Qaeda and its allies have perpetrated attacks in a half dozen African countries from Kenya to Morocco, while the continent's failed states and huge swaths of ungoverned territory offer sanctuary to terrorist groups". It cited "disturbing signs" of radicalisation among African Muslims. "All this comes", it noted "as America is growing increasingly reliant on African oil, which already accounts for 15 percent of U.S. imports and is expected to become even more important in the decade ahead".

"Is Africa America's blind spot in the global war on terror? How significant is the danger of al Qaeda and Islamic extremism there? How is the Pentagon, which has quietly dispatched 1,800 troops to combat terrorism in the Horn of Africa since late 2002, adapting to meet this threat? How will access to Africa's vast natural resource wealth affect the global balance of power in the twenty-first century? Can African oil and gas reserves save the United States from dependence on the Middle East?"

Kirkland told the conference that "diversity of [energy] supply for the United States is absolutely critical. More than ever before, Africa, I believe, is central to that diversity. African imports help ensure America's sources of crude remain diversified. Today, according to the US government estimates, Africa accounts for about one in every six barrels of US oil imports. Over the next 10 years, that figure on imports is expected, from Africa, to be one out of every four barrels. So from an energy company's perspective, Africa represents one of the world's brightest prospects as a source for new oil and gas. It also, for this country, is of great importance for its diversity … So for our own vital interests, I believe the US government must continue to view Africa as a region of strategic importance."

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