Unified Leadership Fails to Take Hold in Somalia Somalia hasn't had an internationally recognized government since 1991. As tens of thousands flee violence in the capital, Mogadishu, critics say the U.S. hasn't focused aid efforts where needed.
NPR logo Unified Leadership Fails to Take Hold in Somalia

Unified Leadership Fails to Take Hold in Somalia

A Somali boy helps wheel his older brother's body in a cart in Mogadishu, Somalia. Mustafa Abdi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Mustafa Abdi/AFP/Getty Images

A Somali boy helps wheel his older brother's body in a cart in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Mustafa Abdi/AFP/Getty Images

Somalis Flee Mogadishu

Thousands of Somalis are fleeing Mogadishu and surrounding areas to escape violence. Read about the country's latest struggles.

Alice Kreit, NPR
Map of Somalia
Alice Kreit, NPR

Former Somalian Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi. Jose Cendon/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Jose Cendon/AFP/Getty Images

Somali families lead their donkey-laden carts away from their homes in the lower Shabelle region of Somalia on Nov. 5. Abdurashid Abdulle Abikar/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Abdurashid Abdulle Abikar/AFP/Getty Images

Somali families lead their donkey-laden carts away from their homes in the lower Shabelle region of Somalia on Nov. 5.

Abdurashid Abdulle Abikar/AFP/Getty Images

Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. Gedi and Yusuf come from rival clans and had feuded since the formation of the government. Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

The latest U.S. State Department travel warning for Somalia reads like the scenario for an improbable Hollywood action movie: those who venture to the anarchic country in the Horn of Africa run the risk of being caught up in clan warfare, kidnapping, murder, al-Qaida-linked terrorism and piracy in the Indian Ocean.

The United States has a big stake in Somalia's future. The thrust of American policy has been to try to keep the country from becoming a sanctuary for terrorists, but critics say the United States undermined this policy by supporting corrupt warlords instead of Islamic moderates.

Somalia hasn't had an internationally recognized government since 1991, when local warlords overthrew the long-time military dictator, Mohammed Siad Barre. A three-year old transitional government controls less than half the country. Several other Somali regions have declared autonomy. At least one, Somaliland, is demanding total independence.

Experts are divided as to whether a recent shift in leadership in Somalia will help.

Response to the Situation

International humanitarian groups say the misery in Somalia now rivals that of Darfur, Sudan. Despite the numbers of displaced people and the lack of food, medicine and shelter, the United Nations won't risk sending peacekeepers into the violence-torn country, let alone a team to assess the humanitarian needs there. U.S. officials say the country could become a sanctuary for terrorists.

The U.S. is widely accused of making the situation worse. Critics say that, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration focused too narrowly on a secretive war against terrorist groups, violating international agreements and human rights in the process.

American involvement in Somalia goes back to the Cold War, when the United States and the former Soviet Union backed different factions in the region. But it was the U.S. military operation in the country, from 1992 to 1994, that established many current American attitudes toward Somalia. The action film "Blackhawk Down" is the sum of most American's knowledge of the conflict.

The country was in the midst of a civil war that disrupted farming and food distribution and triggered a famine. The international community responded with food and other relief supplies, but security was so poor that most of the food was stolen by clan-based militias, which often traded it for more weapons.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush sent troops to Mogadishu to protect the shipments. The following summer, 18 American soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in a battle with Somali militiamen.

The United States withdrew its troops in 1994, and paid only cursory attention to Somalia for the next several years. That was a mistake, according to Jennifer Cooke, a co-director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cooke says U.S. relations with Somalia focused too narrowly on counterterrorism, and missed opportunities to engage with moderate Islamic groups.

"At that point there was a [U.S.] tendency to paint them all with the Islamist jihadi brush," says Cooke.

Opposing the Islamic Courts Union

The U.S. opposed the Islamic Courts Union, an umbrella group that included both moderates and Muslim extremists, and instead backed an unpopular coalition of Mogadishu militia leaders.

"We ended up being associated with some pretty unsavory folks," says Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College.

In June of 2006, the Islamic Courts Union defeated the warlords and brought a measure of security to the capital, Mogadishu. Menkhaus says it was then that authority for U.S. policy in the country shifted from the CIA to the State Department, which tried but failed to get the parties to negotiate a government of national unity.

Cooke says Somali perceptions of the United States were further damaged by American backing of Ethiopia, which sent sent in troops to drive out the Islamic Courts Union in December. The United States supported the invasion with airstrikes against fleeing ICU leaders and al-Qaida suspects, she says, leading both Somalis and Ethiopians to believe that the United States also approved of brutal and heavy-handed tactics by Ethiopian ground troops.

Backing the TFG

Although the Bush administration also is backing Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, or TFG, Cooke says it has thus far failed to push the government to open itself up to participation by other factions.

She says the recent resignation of Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi could provide an opportunity to make the transitional government work better. Gedi and Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who comes from a rival clan, have feuded almost since the government was formed.

Menkhaus has little confidence that a new prime minister will help.

"The word I'm getting from some Somali opposition leaders," he says, "is that they're not going to support any candidate. They don't want to see the TFG succeed."

Menkhaus says Somalia is an example of a backward trend in U.S. foreign policy, a return to Cold War days when the United States was willing to ally with corrupt and anti-democratic groups if they professed a willingness to fight communism.

"Right now," says Menkhaus, "Ethiopia needs to hear from us. The way they're fighting is actually compromising us."

In the meantime, Somalis are fleeing their homes by the thousands. Aid groups, such as CARE, say continued fighting could lead to another catastrophic famine, like the one that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the early 1990s.