Jutting like the point of an arrow into the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden — or like the geographic afterthought in back of a continent looking the other way — Somalia is the country even Africa wants nothing to do with: The African Union, in one of seemingly endless agreements to end the 16-year-old civil war in the Horn of Africa, pledged to send 8,000 peacekeepers there to quell an Islamic insurgency and replace Ethiopian troops Somalis generally despise for their periodic habit of invading. Not a single African Union country but Uganda has yet sent troops, and Uganda only did so when the United States footed the bill of the soldiers’ trip.
As in so many places in the world, the Bush administration is playing a dicey game in Somalia. It can’t very well send troops there, not after the first Bush’s and Bill Clinton's unhappy experience with Operation Restore Hope. The administration is nevertheless making Somalia one of the fronts in Bush’s “war on terror,” and hoping other countries, namely members of the African Union, will do the dirty work (is it any wonder those countries are balking?) Somalia is one of the most lawless countries in the world, and therefore rife, the administration argues, as an al-Qaeda breeding ground. Somalia is almost exclusively Sunni, its long and special relationship with Saudi Arabia — dating back to the Prophet Muhammad’s day, when Somalia was like Plymouth Rock to early Muslims escaping persecution on the Arab peninsula — makes it a favorite of Muslim fundamentalists with an eye on spiritual nostalgia. Or, as the case may be, with Muslim militants with a bend for terrorism.
The Bush administration isn’t entirely wrong to fear that Somalia could be the next Afghanistan, but to compare Somalia with Afghanistan invites misconceptions. Afghanistan after the Taliban take-over in 1996 quieted down. As Khaled Hosseini, the Afghan author of “The Kite Runner,” daringly noted in a Wall Street Journal interview, “The only thing the Taliban brought was stability, they brought security.” It’s that stability and security, meshed with Afghanistan’s isolation, that Osama bin Lade and al-Qaeda sought out. Anarchy wouldn’t have suited them. Why would it suit them in Somalia?
The more immediate problem in Somalia is utter fracture. It’s not a functioning country. The northern part doesn’t even consider itself part of the country anymore. (Think of Somalia in this case as Africa’s Florida: the northern panhandle doesn’t even want to know what the southern region is doing.) Somaliland in the northern-western part of the country declared itself autonomous from Somalia 1991, and thrives as a result. Thrives, that is, relative to the rest of the country. Not a single country has recognized Somaliland as an independent nation. And lately it’s been warring with Puntland, the next-largest province to the east (a region rich in oil. Understand why the United States is meddling now? And occasionally bombing the place? It’s not just a fear of al-Qaeda.)
Meanwhile Mogadishu, seared in American memory as the site of the Pentagon’s “Black Hawk Down” incident, remains a deadly capital. Violence and famine are endemic. No one is safe. The head of the United Nations’ food agency providing some relief was seized today by government officers, the morning after a night of heavy fighting between government forces and Islamic insurgents. Just another day in the Somali capital.
This profile of Somalia summarizes the nation’s bedraggled recent history as well as its prouder past.