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Fishermen & the Failed State


Last Updated: 08/13/2013 3:54 pm

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Part of the problem with US and international reluctance to address issues in Somalia is directly related to fallout from the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993.
Yes. But it is important not to take that event in isolation because it will do more to mislead than help explain things. The real problem was that after the state failed in 1991, you had the onset of a serious famine in southern and central Somalia. Pictures of stick children with bloated bellies and flies on their faces captured international attention, resulting in a series of half measures to try to end it. Relief efforts were thwarted by a breakdown of security in Somalia that saw food not getting to the starving women and children, but instead stolen by able-bodied militia groups. After it was determined it was not possible to fly in enough food, the US made the decision to go in militarily, open up communication corridors on the ground by force, and ensure that the NGOs could then deliver the food to the people who were dying in the interior of the country, which is what happened at the end of 1992 and continued into 1993.

It was a very successful operation.

It was. The American-led operation was called UNITAF and it stopped the famine. Then the famine relief effort was transitioned to a UN program that significantly expanded the mandate to include nation-building. There was a lot of concern at the time that the UN was trying to do too much, and perhaps it was. At the same time, it made no sense to stop the famine, pull out, and let conditions in Somalia revert to what they were before the famine was stopped. The UN effort started off okay but very quickly went off track because of a disagreement between the UN forces—still heavily American but operating under UN and not US leadership—which got crossways with one of the warlords, Mohammed Farah Aidid, who saw his power diminishing due to the growing UN presence. His militia carried out a very serious attack against Pakistani peacekeepers, killing 24, disemboweling some of them and gouging their eyes out. It was a horrible episode that so enraged the UN that virtually the next day it decided to stop Aidid. From that moment on, the UN effort in Somalia became a campaign to capture or kill Aidid. Nation-building got lost in the process.

One of the many efforts to capture Aidid led to the Black Hawk Down incident on October 3, 1993 which failed to capture Aidid and led to the unraveling of the whole UN effort. As State Department Coordinator for Somalia leading up to and during that attack, I had access to the information concerning the battle. The US clearly won the fight in a military sense. Close to a thousand Somalis were killed and injured whereas the number of Americans killed was quite small [18 killed, 73 wounded]. It was a debacle because the idea was to either capture or kill Aidid and his close advisors and that didn’t happen. In fact it made him something of a hero. The US decided after Black Hawk Down to remove all US forces from Somalia, which it did in March 1994. All UN forces left in March of 1995, thus ending the international intervention in Somalia.

Is it safe to say that the killings of US soldiers and images of their broken bodies being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu made the US reluctant to reengage in Somalia or get involved in other parts of the world?
Yes, absolutely. An example of where the US didn’t get involved occurred within weeks of the departure of US troops from Somalia, in early 1994, when the genocide began in Rwanda. There is a close link between the US decision not to engage militarily in Rwanda and the bad experience it had in Somalia. Somalia also had a direct impact on US reluctance to engage in Haiti. This reluctance finally was reversed when the US went into the Balkans. The US very reluctantly became involved in Sierra Leone; not with troops, but financially and diplomatically. In early 2000, the Bush administration also sent Marines to Liberia but there was no significant operation on the ground other than evacuating the US embassy in Monrovia. To the best of my knowledge, there has been no real on-the-ground US military involvement in Africa since then, with the major exception of establishing the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa military base in Djibouti in 2002. It addresses counterterrorism and has about 1,700 personnel.

Besides the fact that Somalia is a failed state, what are the root causes of the Somali-based piracy?

The causes are largely economic. Massive unemployment is part of it. There is almost no way to make money. There are no precise statistics, but in the area where pirates are active, unemployment is off the charts. There are some small shop owners and others who do a little importing or raise a few animals. Among young people unemployment probably verges on 100 percent. Some Somalis involved in piracy were formerly fisherman and it’s true that there has been illegal foreign fishing off the Somali coast. This has hampered their ability to earn a livelihood by fishing. But many pirates are not former fisherman. They are herders or ne’er-do-wells, shopkeepers, or just about anyone who concluded this is a way to make an awful lot of money. They like to pass themselves off as “Robin Hoods”—harmed fisherman whose livelihoods has been ruined by all of the international fishing vessels off the Somali coast. There is some truth to that. But then to suggest that illegal foreign fishing justifies piracy, kidnapping, and holding people for ransom is ludicrous. In my view they are “robbing hoods” engaged in criminal activity. But at the same time I am sympathetic to Somali criticism of illegal foreign fishing and the fact that the international community has never tried to do anything about it. It is high time it does. But ending illegal fishing will not end piracy.

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