Opinion and Editorial

The Somalia syndrome

Noam Chomsky (Counterpoint)
Filed on December 23, 2007

THIS poor country keeps taking one blow after another," Peter Goossens observed two months ago in an interview with The New York Times' Jeffrey Gettleman. "Ultimately, it will break." The country is Somalia, and Goossens directs the World Food Programme, which is now feeding some 1.2 million people there, 15 per cent of the population.

This tragic and tortured land is "marching right up to the edge of a crisis", Goossens said. "Any additional little thing, any little flood or drought, will push them over."

Somalia, war- and famine-torn, is beset from within and without. With a vigilance especially stepped up since September 11, the United States has reformulated its long-standing efforts to control the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia) as a front line in the "war on terror", and Somalia is at its very tip. The crisis in Somalia may be regarded partly as collateral damage from that "war on terror" and the geopolitical concerns reframed in these terms.

As Somalia sinks deeper into chaos, members of the African Union have sent small peacekeeping forces there, and pledged to send more if funding is made available. But they are unlikely to do so, "because there is no peace to keep (in Somalia) in the first place," Richard Cornwell, of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, told Scott Baldauf and Alexis Okeowo of The Christian Science Monitor in May.

By November, the United Nations noted that Somalia had "higher malnutrition rates, more current bloodshed and fewer aid workers than Darfur," Gettleman reported. Indeed, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the top UN official for Somalia, described its plight as "the worst on the continent".

The United Nations, however, lacks the capacity to reach the people who are hungry, exposed, sick and dying in Somalia, according to Eric Laroche, head of UN humanitarian operations there.

"If this were happening in Darfur, there would be a big fuss," Laroche said. "But Somalia has been a forgotten emergency for years."

One distinction, hard to miss, is that the tragedy of Darfur can be blamed on someone else, in fact an official enemy —the government of Sudan and its Arab militias —while responsibility for the current disaster in Somalia, like others there that preceded it, lies substantially in our own hands.

In 1992, after the overthrow of the Somali dictatorship by clan-based militias and the ensuing famine, the United States sent thousands of soldiers on a dubious "rescue mission" to assist with humanitarian operations. But in October 1993, during the "Battle of Mogadishu", two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by Somali militiamen, leaving 18 US Army Rangers dead, along with perhaps 1,000 Somalis.

US forces were immediately withdrawn in a manner that continued the murderous ratio. "In the final stages of the troops' retreat, every bullet fired against them was answered, it seemed, by 100," Los Angeles Times correspondent John Balzar reported. As for the Somali casualties, Marine Lt. Gen. Anthony Zinni, who commanded the operation, informed the Press that "I'm not counting bodies ... I'm not interested."

CIA officials privately conceded that during the US operations in Somalia, in which 34 US soldiers were lost, Somali casualties —militiamen and civilians —may have been 7,000 to 10,000, Charles William Maynes reported in Foreign Policy.

The "rescue mission", which may have killed about as many Somalis as it saved, left the country in the hands of brutal warlords.

"After that, the United States —and much of the rest of the world —basically turned its back on Somalia," Gettleman reports. "But in the summer of 2006, the world started paying attention again after a grass-roots Islamist movement emerged from the clan chaos and seized control of much of the country", leaving only an enclave adjoining Ethiopia in the hands of the Western-recognised Transitional Federal Government.

During their brief tenure, the Islamists "didn't cause us any problems", Laroche reports. Ould-Abdallah called the six months of their rule Somalia's "golden era", the only period of peace in Somalia for years. Other UN officials concur, observing that "the country was in better shape during the brief reign of Somalia's Islamist movement last year" than it has been since Ethiopia invaded in December 2006 to impose the rule of the TFG.

The Ethiopian invasion, with US backing and direct participation, took place immediately after the U.N. Security Council, at U.S. initiative, passed Resolution 1725 for Somalia, which called upon all states "to refrain from action that could provoke or perpetuate violence and violations of human rights, contribute to unnecessary tension and mistrust, endanger the ceasefire and political process, or further damage the humanitarian situation."

The invasion by Somalia's historical enemy, Christian Ethiopia, soon elicited a bitter resistance, leading to the present crisis.

The official reason for US participation in Ethiopia's overthrow of the Islamist regime is the "war on terror" —which itself has engendered terror, quite apart from its own atrocities. Furthermore, the roots of the Islamic fundamentalist regime trace back to earlier stages of the "war on terror".

Immediately after September 11, the United States spearheaded an international effort to close down Al-Barakaat —a Dubai-based Somali remittance network that also runs major businesses in Somalia —on grounds that it was financing terror. This move was hailed by government and media as one of the great successes of the "war on terror". In contrast, Washington's withdrawal of its charges as without merit a year later aroused little interest.

The greatest impact of the closing of Al-Barakaat was in Somalia. According to the United Nations, in 2001 the enterprise was responsible for about half the $500 million remittances to Somalia, "more than it earns from any other economic sector and 10 times the amount of foreign aid (Somalia) receives".

Al-Barakat also played a major role in the economy, Ibrahim Warde observes in "The Price of Fear", his devastating study of Bush's "financial war on terror". The frivolous attack on a very fragile society "may have played a role in the rise ... of Islamic fundamentalists," Warde concludes —another familiar consequence of the "war on terror".

The renewed torture of Somalia falls within the context of US efforts to gain firm control over the Horn of Africa, where the United States is launching a new Africa command and extending naval operations in crucial shipping lanes, part of the broader campaign to ensure its domination of the world's primary energy resources in the Gulf region and in Africa as well.

Just after World War II, when State Department planners were assigning each part of the world its "function" within the overall system of US domination, Africa was considered unimportant. George Kennan, head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, advised that Africa should be handed over to Europe to "exploit" for its reconstruction. No longer. The resources of Africa are too valuable to be left to others, particularly with China extending its commercial reach.

If poor Somalia collapses in starvation and misery, that is merely a sideshow of grand geopolitical designs, and of little moment.

Noam Chomsky's most recent book is What We Say Goes: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World. Chomsky is emeritus professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass

©2007 Noam Chomsky

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