Tuesday, October 08, 2013

No News Is New News: Revisiting the Somali Crisis of 1992-93

With the release on October 11 of the new Tom Hanks' movie, Captain Phillips, which is about the capture of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates; with the attack on the Westgate mall in Nairobi by Somali terrorists affiliated with al-Shabaab; and with this week's anniversary of the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu (later chronicled in the book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down, and the 2002 Ridley Scott film of the same name), it seemed timely to revisit the Somali crisis of 1992-93 by looking at old video.

The video, in this case, is an episode of “On the Line,” which was produced by the Voice of America (VOA) for its Worldnet television network. The date was October 8, 1992. The occasion was the George H.W. Bush administration's lame-duck decision to send American troops to Somalia to protect the deliveries of humanitarian assistance, which had been obstructed by thugs and warlords.

On the Line: Crigler, Sincere, Untermeyer, Natsios
This troop deployment came to an insidious end just a year later, when the Clinton administration decided, after the debacle later portrayed in Black Hawk Down, that U.S. forces should be withdrawn from Somalia.

The guests on “On the Line” that day were Andrew Natsios, at the time director of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance within USAID and President Bush's special representative for humanitarian assistance in Somalia; Frank Crigler, the penultimate U.S. ambassador to Somalia (1987-90), who had retired from the Foreign Service earlier that year; and myself, then the director for African affairs at the International Freedom Foundation in Washington.

The host of the program was Chase Untermeyer, then director of the Voice of America and later U.S. Ambassador to Qatar.

Untermeyer asked me to explain the causes of the conflict in Somalia. My reply:
The causes are deep-seated, of course. The collapse of the government could have been a temporary power vacuum in which another government would come to power quickly. But in fact we see rival factions arising all over the place and the fact is that these factions are hostile to the humanitarian aid that's coming into the country and that is what is causing the technical problems in solving the disaster.
He asked Natsios, “Who is in charge in Somalia?” Natsios replied:
In terms of Somalis, no one is in charge of Somalia. In fact, I wish this were a civil war, at least we could negotiate with the two sides as we've done all over the world. In the Angolan civil war, the Mozambican civil war, the Sudan civil war, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, this is not like that. Even if the warlords agreed, they don't control half the militias. There are just bands of young thugs running around with guns who are high on the drug called khat, an amphetamine. They are uncontrollable and they don't answer to anybody.
Then Untermeyer said, “Mr. Sincere, is it correct to refer to Somalia as a country. Does it have any semblance of national order or rule at the moment?”

I answered:
I think that the best description for Somalia today was actually written by Thomas Hobbes 400 years ago, [in] Leviathan:  it's the state of nature, a war of all against all. It's something almost unprecedented in 20th century history. We're simply unused to a situation like this. And that is why it's so difficult for the United States, the other Western democracies, and the United Nations to get a handle on this and to actually help the situation.
Ambassador Crigler added to my response:
Let me comment on that, Chase, because I think this is a situation that's not going to remain unique. I don't believe it's unique even today. I think we're seeing something not unlike that in Yugoslavia, or what's left of Yugoslavia, and even, as we speak, in Georgia in the former Soviet Union – a situation in which the state of nature seems to be the only substitute for a repressive state structure.
(I find it interesting that both Georgia and the former Yugoslavia have settled into stability, with several former Yugoslav states joining NATO and the European Union. Somalia remains anarchic by comparison.)

Crigler continued:
The state structure in Somalia was really imposed from without, in any case, there was never really a nation-state as we know it in Somalia before, and that has collapsed since [President Mohammed] Siad-Barre's fall because that rigid structure is no longer there and simply crumbled of its own and there was nothing left to take the place of it. What has happened over the years under that rigid structure is that people have lost the talents for settling their ethnic differences by peaceful means. Traditionally, as Andrew [Natsios] was suggesting, the elders were able to moderate those differences. Those skills were lost during this period of repression and I'm afraid that's not a unique situation we're going to see in the world today.
Later, Andrew Natsios suggested that, if the rival Somali factions didn't resolve their own problems, the United States would withdraw its troops. (That prediction came true, if in tragic fashion.) Untermeyer asked me if I agreed that that is a good policy. I said:
I think it's the best policy. This is ultimately up to the Somali people to solve for themselves. Order cannot be imposed from outside. Humanitarian assistance cannot be provided if rival clans are actually shooting the humanitarian assisters. It's a tragic situation and it is ultimately up to the Somali people to get together and say, “We no longer want to have this war. We must live peacefully.” And it's not up to us to impose that on them. We can prod them, we can cajole them, but beyond that, there's not much we can do.
At that point, Untermeyer asked Ambassador Crigler about Somalia's strategic importance, and then posed the same question to me. My answer:
Well, certainly, from a geopolitical standpoint, Somalia always will have a strategic value to the United States and to any rivals the United States might have. But I think the point should be made that a comparison has often been made that the United States is paying more attention to Yugoslavia than to Somalia and the accusation has been leveled that this may be of racist origin but in fact the amount of aid that the United States has sent to Somalia has far outstripped what's been sent to Yugoslavia in the same period of time. I don't think the United States has fallen down on the job in this at all but the fact is that the hostility that we're facing in the region is blocking our ability to solve the problem.
Twenty-one years later, and we are still facing a region that is blocking our ability to solve the problem.

Here's the complete video of episode 24 of “On the Line,” just under 20 minutes, as recorded in the VOA studios on October 8, 1992:

No comments: