Fareed Zakaria’s column in today’s Washington Post, seeking to dissect Somalia and the problem it poses—or to Zakaria, doesn’t pose—to US national security is wrong both on the merits of the argument and in its retelling of Somali history.
Let us begin with the history. The collapse of Somalia is usually dated to 1991—not Zakaria’s 1992—when Said Barre was finally driven from Mogadishu in January. In fact, Somalia was without effective government for at least several years before Barre’s ouster as the country struggled to address multiple anti-regime armed movements and recover from its disastrous war with Ethiopia.
The United States did not give tacit support to Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia. The United States gave material support to Ethiopia, providing Ethiopia with intelligence and air support for its invasion.
The Islamic Courts Union, the emerging indigenous government of Somalia that Ethiopia and the United States help to oust, is a difficult movement to color broadly. They really were an alliance of Islamic courts that exercised extremely localized jurisdiction. Some of the courts were relatively moderate, while others were draconian in their interpretation and implementation of Sharia. To describe the ICU as a “radical movement” is, I think, overbroad—in fact, one of the erstwhile leaders of the ICU is now the president of the US-backed Transitional Federal Government.
As to whether the United States has suffered deleterious effects owing to the chaos in Somalia, the only answer to this question must be yes. In the governmental void of Somalia, members of al-Qaeda have reportedly found safe haven; the al-Shabab has been born, grown and strengthened; pirates operate with impunity from Somalia’s coast, reaching into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and even the wider Indian Ocean. These waterways, particularly the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, are critical avenues of international shipping. Simply glancing at the IMB’s Live Piracy Map communicates the intensity of piracy occurring in and around the Horn of Africa as compared to the rest of the world. Reading the IMB’s Piracy Prone Areas and Warnings does an even better job. Somalia-based pirates have driven up the costs of ship insurance 4,000%; the costs of maintaining the naval flotilla in the Gulf of Aden—to which the United States contributes vessels and manpower—approaches $300 million. The impact of Somalia-based piracy on global trade has been estimated as high as $16 billion annually.
Beyond piracy, the strongest pole of power in Somalia, currently, is the extremely radical al-Shabab which emerged from the ashes of the ICU. Its links with al-Qaeda are worrisome in themselves, more worrisome in the wake of the Kampala bombings, which demonstrate an ability to mount at least regional operations. Again, this was the first cross-border operation mounted by al-Shabab and therefore represents a sea change in the behavior of a heretofore Somalia-centric organization. Finally, transit between Somalia and Yemen is common, frequent, and unregulated, making it possible, even likely, that al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia physically communicate.