Somalia: Tangled Ties of the Past Shaped U.S.-Somali Relations

Soldiers from TF 2-14 hold back curious Somalis and determined reporters as engineers destroy a weapons cache found during a search and seizure mission downtown Mogadishu.
3 January 1993
Africa News Service (Durham)

Late last year, as Somalia plunged deeper into violence, human rights and relief organizations raised a cry of alarm in Washington. "We made a concerted effort to get the administration to pay attention to what was happening, to the crisis that was clearly developing," says Tom Getman, Washington representative of World Vision, an American non-governmental organization working in Somalia and other beleaguered countries.

Within the U.S. government, there were advocates for taking the Somalia issue to the United Nations Security Council to give it visibility and to focus world concern. But those efforts were rebuffed. "Every time we raised it, we were told we had to adopt triage in our approach to the UN," says one frustrated official. "It was said that we could only raise issues of real national importance, like Qaddafi and the bombing of Pan Am 103,"he says referring to the campaign for an economic embargo to force Libya to hand over for trial suspects in the 1988 bombings of the Boeing 747 over Lockerbie, Scotland. " The lives of thousands of Somalis were just not considered important," the official said.

Again this March and April, when African diplomats at the United Nations pressed for a forceful world response to what was by then mass starvation in Somalia, the U.S. government balked. A proposal by UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to send 500 troops to protect relief efforst was met with an unenthusiastic response from Washington.

What many see as a failure of American leadership in meeting the unfolding tragedy provides the backdrop for the current, unprecedented military operation. Most analysts agree that the delay in response - by the United States, the United Nations and the world community at large - has made the task of feeding Somalis today more difficult and has reduced the long-term prospects for peace in the region.

Today, with "Operation Restore Hope" at full tilt, Somalia provides a striking case study of how postponing response to a developing political crisis can necessitate much more costly intervention to manage a resulting humanitarian catastrophe. The fact that Somalia was, until so recently, a close Cold War ally and major aid recipient adds another dimension to the debate.

The administration's internal debate on Somalia early this year pitted officials favoring the deployment of UN troops to guard relief supplies against those contending that the leading U.S. role in providing humanitarian aid was as much as Washington should or could do. During one pivotal State Department session convened to draft a UN Security Council resolution acceptable to the administration, officials from the Bureau for International Organizational Affairs, which has responsibility for UN matters, urged a "go-slow" policy, citing what they said was growing congressional displeasure with rising UN peacekeeping costs.

The Somali operation was particularly problematic, these officials also argued, because it would involve the UN for the first time in a conflict without the consent of all the warring factions. Gen. Mohammed Aidid, leader of the largest armed group in the country, had refused to accept a UN troop deployment, although diplomatic efforts were underway to convince him to cooperate.

The language of the Security Council resolution, as proposed by the U.S. government and adopted unanimously by Security Council members, approved the deployment of 50 unarmed observers but agreed only "in principle" to the establishment of an armed security force.

"While we did not rule out potential UN peacekeepers in Somalia, we thought it premature until there was effective cease-fire," said John Bolton, the assistant of State for International Organizational Affairs, during congressional testimony in July.

The U.S. stance alarmed many observers of the widening Somali crisis, including African representatives at the UN who were pleading for a stronger reaction to the rising death toll. "The big powers, particularly the United States, wanted to see Somalia as simply a humanitarian problem to be dealt with by humanitarian NGOs (non-governmental organizations)," says Ambassador Simbarashe Mumbengegwi of Zimbabwe, one of three current African members of the 15-member Security Council.

Mumbengegwi and his Security Council colleague, Ambassador Jose` Luis Jesus of Cape Verde, argued that sending the armed troops was "of fundamental importance" for mounting a successful relief operation - but the United States was "not supportive," Jesus says.

The proposed contingent of 500 troops could have played a critical role in facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance and in providing "psychological stability" at a time of extreme chaos, Jesus says.

Only two months later - in July, while Jesus was serving as the rotating Security Council president - were the first unarmed observers dispatched to Somalia and preparations begun for sending armed troops to guard relief supplies.

Rakiya Omaar, a prominent Somali critic of the UN's performance in the crisis, says the U.S. reluctance to support active intervention in early 1992 "proved very costly" for Somalia in another way. UN agencies like the World Food Program and the United Nations Children's Fund, which had downscaled their relief efforts in 1991 because of security concerns, felt no pressure to reinvigorate their activities from "the only UN member with the financial and political clout" to induce a response. That inaction by the UN agencies "contributed greatly to the worsening suffering," says Omaar, who was executive director of the human rights group Africa Watch at the time.

Pressure for a greater response began building in late July, both in Washington and at the United Nations, as pictures of starving Somalis started appearing on the world's television screens. Up to that point, news reporting on Somalia - especially in the United States - had been limited, even though one of the largest contingents of Western journalists in Africa is based in nearby Nairobi, where news about spreading suffering was readily available from relief agencies and other reliable sources.

Senator Nancy Kassebaum of Kansas, the ranking Republican on the Senate Africa subcommittee, who traveled to Somalia in late July to focus attention on the situation, was one outspoken advocate for strong action. She argued that the United Nations had to send a security force "whether or not they have the consent" of the warring parties, and she asserted that the United States had a "moral obligation" to act decisively to end the dying. "We must not show any less concern for Somalia now than we did during the Cold War when we considered Somalia to have strategic importance," she said in an interview on her return.

U.S. involvement in Somalia began in 1960, when the colonies of British and Italian Somaliland gained independance as a single nation. Washington and Moscow competed for influence through the decade, although the focus of U.S. interest in the region was next door in Ethiopia.

In the first years after siezing power in a 1969 coup, Gen. Mohammed Siad Barre agreed to allow Soviet usage of sea and air facilities in exchange for large-scale military and economic aid. In 1977, after the Soviets embraced the Ethiopian military regime that had ousted the pro-American emperor, Haile Selassie, Siad Barre turned for help to the United States.

The next years were punctuated by off-again, on-again regional conflict as Siad tried to press long-standing Somali claims to the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, which is inhabited by a Somali-speaking population. An invasion of the Ogaden by Somali regulars in 1977 delayed implementation of a Carter administration decision to provide Somalia withdrawal from Ethiopia the following year - and seemed to have backing from Mogadishu - further postponed the aid flow.

In 1980, however, Somalia offered American rapid deployment forces access to its ports and air facilities in exchange for a significant commitment of military and economic assistance that was to last for a decade.

Over the next ten years, U.S. support for Somalia exceeded $680 million, elevating the country to the top ranks of American aid recipients in sub-Saharan Africa. Troubled by Siad Barre's mismanagement, continuing territorial ambitions, and worsening human rights record, congressional critics questioned and, at times, restricted the flow of U.S. weapons and funds.

A 1986 study by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that only 12% of U.S. emergency food aid to Somalia was reaching the targeted "most needy" population. A detailed inquiry prepared for the State Department, following heavy fighting in 1988 between government troops and opponents in the north, reported that the army "conducted what appears to be a systematic pattern of attacks" against unarmed civilians.

The Reagan Administration defended the aid both on grounds of U.S. strategic interests and as a means of moderating the Somali government's treatment of its people.

But critics like Holly Burkhalter of Human Rights Watch discount the assertion that U.S. influence persuaded Siad Barre to change course. "Precisely during this time that U.S. policymakers are now telling you that they were able to modulate his behavior, he engaged in a counter-insurgency effort against the north that by our calculation left 50,000 Somali citizens dead and forced one-half million Somali citizens across the borders into the desert of Ethiopia," she said in an interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault on the "MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour." "If that's moderate behavior, I'd like to know what their definition of extreme behavior would be."

A Pentagon analysis prepared as Operation Restore Hope got underway attempts to rebut the argument that U.S. military assitance abetted the atrocities of a dictator. The aid flow was predominantely economic, the report says, and the military component - which totaled about $188 million over ten years - was mostly "non-lethal."

The non-lethal aid included trucks and other vehicles, construction equipment, clothing, dental and medical supplies, and spare parts for ships, vehicles, aircraft, communications gear and weapons. Rifles, machine guns, missiles and other fire power, plus armored personnel carriers accounted for roughly 19% of the total, the Pentagon says.

Many members of Congress saw all the aid as supporting an increasingly brutal and corrupt regime. But American assistance kept flowing, albeit in declining amounts, until Siad Barre's ouster in early 1991 finally blocked the aid pipeline completely.

Somalis were left with their poverty and inherited weaponry.

As Siad Barre fell, U.S. Marines were forced to stage a dramtic helicopter rescue from offshore ships to evacuate personnel stranded in the American embassy compound, including Ambassador James Bishop.

Extricated the soldiers taking part in Operation Restore Hope may prove equally challenging.

The Pentagon's four-phase plan, beginning with Marine arrivals in Mogadishu, the addition of army forces, and the expansion of operations throughout Somalia's famine-affected areas, is to end with a transition from the U.S.-dominated force now in Somalia to a UN peacekeeping operation drawn from many nations. U.S. support personnel may stay to provide functions the American military does particularly well, but no ground troops are to remain in the country, according to the Pentagon blueprint.

But with the memory of earlier half-spirited efforts still fresh, Boutros-Ghali has been pressing the Bush administration to widen the mandate of Operation Restore Hope. Using the prospect of the UN replacement force - a key U.S. objective - as a bargaining chip, Boutros-Ghali has campaigned to have the American-led troops disarm the warring parties and deploy throughout Somalia as a prelude to a political settlement.

The Bush administration set a more limited objective: the creation of an environment secure enough to ensure food deliveries to the worst-affected famine areas with the intention of bringing American soldiers home in a relatively short period of time.

In a December 21 report to the Security Council, the UN secretary-general said that the decision to replace the U.S.-led coalition force with UN peace-enforcing troops will have to wait "until the situation on the ground in Somalia becomes clearer." He warned that "premature departure" of U.S. troops could "plunge Somalia back into anarchy and starvation." In other words, he implied, it could lead to a replay of the painful, extended deliberations the UN has pursued throughout the past year.

U.S. Aid To Somalia, 1980-1990 (in millions of $)

1980 20.0 25.0 33.0
1981 20.4 56.9 77.3
1982 25.5 55.8 81.3
1983 25.5 57.7 83.2
1984 33.1 81.0 114.1
1985 34.2 82.4 116.6
1986 20.1 68.5 88.6
1987 8.2 41.8 50.0
1988 6.6 23.0 29.6
1989 .8 19.4 20.2
1990 .0 5.5 5.5
Total: 194.4 492.0 686.4

Leading Recipients of U.S. Aid to Sub-Saharan Africa 1962-1992 (in millions of U.S. dollars)

Sudan 1,923
Zaire 1,324
Kenya 1,247
Ethiopia 1,050
Somalia 928
Liberia 918

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