Martin Fletcher: Commentary
December 26, 2009
Afghanistan and Iraq have monopolized the headlines but Somalia is
arguably an even greater victim of George W. Bush’s ill-conceived and
lamentably executed War on Terror. America’s interventions have proved
so catastrophic that its best hope of salvaging something from the
wreckage is a president it chased from power three years ago, who
controls a few square miles of a country three times the size of
It has delivered a people that practiced a moderate form of Islam into
the hands of religious extremists. Its efforts to combat terrorism have
turned Somalia into a launchpad for global jihad. Somalia is now the
ultimate failed state whose mayhem threatens to destabilize the region
and whose pirates maraud the vital shipping lanes off its shores. Its
people endure Africa’s worst humanitarian crisis.
During the Cold War, the US pumped arms into Somalia to counter Soviet
support for neighboring Ethiopia. In 1991 clan warlords ousted the
dictator Siyad Barre and turned that arsenal on each other. In 1992
President Bush Snr sent in the Marines to help its suffering people — a
venture that ended in the Black Hawk Down debacle, a humiliating US
withdrawal and a dozen more years of anarchy as the feuding warlords ran
In 2006 a grassroots movement called the Islamic Courts Union emerged.
Fearing that the Courts would become a new Taleban and Somalia another
Afghanistan, Washington sought to stop the Islamists by giving the
warlords millions of dollars for arms — the same warlords who had
humiliated America in 1993 and subsequently caused such carnage. The
plan failed. The Courts drove the warlords from Mogadishu and imposed
order for the first time in a generation. The city’s roadblocks and
machineguns vanished. Exiles returned, businesses reopened and people
ventured out at night.
The Courts’ titular leader was Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, a relative moderate,
but the movement included a militant wing called al-Shabaab, as well as
extremists who imposed strict Islamic law, backed Somali rebels in
neighboring Ethiopia and sheltered terrorists.
Europe broadly favored engagement with the Courts’ moderate leaders. The
Bush Administration backed an invasion by Christian-ruled Ethiopia,
Somalia’s bitter enemy, which replaced the Courts with a deeply
unpopular transitional government of former warlords. After six months
of relative peace Somalia was plunged back into war, with al-Shabaab
portraying themselves as nationalists fighting a puppet government.
Revisiting Mogadishu in April 2007, I saw how the hopes of peace had
Today al-Shabaab controls much of Somalia and most of Mogadishu. It has
morphed into a jihadist movement with ties to al-Qaeda.
In February Sheikh Ahmed became President as part of a UN-sponsored deal
that included the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops. The international
community, thinking his moderate government could peel support from his
former allies in al-Shabaab, promised him $200 million, and the US has
given him tones of weapons. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State,
called the man her country helped to oust in 2006 Somalia’s “best hope”.
Right now, his writ scarcely encompasses the views from his embattled
Source: The Times, December 21, 2009