Know Your Next War: Somalia

War and Peace

Last month a team of US Special Forces soldiers launched a helicopter-based attack on a convoy rumbling across southern Somalia. The action was quick, and a few minutes later the US troops were back aboard their choppers with the body of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was the suspected mastermind of al-Qaeda’s 1998 attack against the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya which left more than 200 dead, as well as a commander in Somalia’s al-Shabab Islamic movement.

So what does one action by a group of US Special Forces soldiers against suspected terrorist half a world away have to do with American foreign policy? Potentially it could mean quite a lot. For one, it shows that the US military may have finally shaken off the effects of the disastrous events portrayed in the movie “Black Hawk Down” (more on that in a moment); but it also is an indication that the US is starting to view the Horn of Africa as the next battleground in the "War on Terror."

Quietly, US intelligence officials have been warning for the past few months that al-Qaeda has been looking to take advantage of Somalia’s status as a lawless, failed state with a growing Islamist movement as the perfect place to set up a new base of operations. And at almost the same time US forces were putting an end to Mr. Nabhan, our man in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal - the head of US forces in Afghanistan - was telling Dutch officials (on 9/11 no less) that he did not see indications of a large al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan any longer.

Here a little explanation about how Somalia became a failed state might be helpful. Somalia’s problems started in 1991 when President Siad Barre was overthrown, which quickly led to battles among the powerful Somali clans who overthrew him (the one exception was in the far northern region of Somaliland, a self-declared but still unrecognized state that has managed to function fairly well on its own since ’91). The interclan warfare led to a humanitarian crisis that prompted a UN-led emergency food distribution program in the capital, Mogadishu, though it quickly became clear that more food was being stolen by warlords then actually distributed to the city’s citizens. That led the US military to stage a poorly conceived anti-warlord operation within Mogadishu that resulted in the deaths of 19 soldiers in October of 1993 (events that were later depicted in “Black Hawk Down”).

The US, and later the UN, withdrew from Somalia, basically leaving the country to the mercies of feuding warlords. But by 2006 a new player was making strides in Somalia, the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist group dedicated to fighting the warlord clans and bringing Sharia law to Somalia. Neighboring Christian Ethiopia wasn’t too happy with the idea of a fundamentalist Islamic state on their border, so they sent in their troops to support the Somali Transitional Government (a group that, in theory, is suppose to oversee the restoration of the rule of law to Somalia), and managed to drive the ICU out of Mogadishu. Ethiopia’s support lasted for two years, until they decided they were tired of losing troops in what had become a guerilla war in and around the capital and withdrew. That paved the way for a new, more radical Islamic group to emerge, al-Shabab (“the Youth”) who are now fighting the Transitional Government for control of Mogadishu and southern Somalia.

So how could Somalia wind up as America’s next war? Right now it has the two things al-Qaeda once found so inviting in Afghanistan – status as a failed state and a home-grown Islamist insurgency. It also has one thing Afghanistan lacked, a coastline roughly the size of the East Coast of the United States along one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. Keep in mind, Afghanistan was a refuge of last resort for al-Qaeda; the only place in the world that would accept Osama bin Laden after he was kicked out of Sudan. As a base from which to launch a global jihad though, it’s a pretty lousy choice – landlocked in Central Asia with little infrastructure to speak of, much of Afghanistan resembles the Middle Ages albeit with pickup trucks and satellite phones.

If al-Qaeda makes good on their attempt to reconstitute themselves in Somalia, President Obama could find it difficult not to get the United States involved in yet another conflict. First, there would be political pressure to continue the “War on Terror” by engaging al-Qaeda in their new stomping grounds; second US troops are scheduled (thanks to a deal with the Iraqi government) to come home from Iraq by the middle of 2011, even though the situation there is far from stable; and third there’s little to indicate that conditions in Afghanistan will be any better by this time next year, or that the United States will be any closer to “victory” in that campaign either.

Put it all together and Somalia may be too tempting a choice for Obama - a quick and easy way for him to burnish his foreign policy and anti-terrorism credentials (you know that whole “fight them over there instead of over here” train of thought) in the wake of an Iraqi withdrawal and Afghani quagmire ahead of the 2012 presidential elections. Though history has shown quick and easy wars are seldom either.