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UN peacekeepers in Somalia – is that a good thing?

John Bolton’s on his way out the door at the UN, but before he’s little more than a much-maligned, mustachio’d memory, he’s pushing a new policy: UN peacekeepers in Baidoa, Somalia. Baidoa is the seat of the largely impotent “transitional government”, which has been confined to little more than a corner of the country by the Union of Islamic Courts, who’ve brought more than a semblance of peace to Mogadishu and much of the rest of Southern Somalia (though they’ve brought sharia law and public floggings with them as well.)

There’s lots of good reasons to be concerned about the situation in Somalia. The UIC has made loud noises about a “holy war” against Ethiopia, which has been backing the transitional government and supplying it with arms and troops (though Ethiopia insists that those guys with guns in Ethiopian military uniforms are merely “advisors”. One wonders if Zenawi has read up on Kennedy and Johnson…) Ethiopia argues that its enemy, Eritrea, and others are arming the Islamists. And some Somalis affiliated with the UIC have talked of a “greater Somalia”, which includes the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia, which is populated mostly by ethnic Somali.

The UN has found evidence that the UIC is, in part, being armed by Iran and Syria in exchange for the assistance of several hundred UIC fighters on the side of Hizbollah in the Israel/Lebanon war. This, understandably, worries those who see the rise of an Islamist government in Somalia as creating a new safe haven for Al-Qaeda and company. (Lots of Somalia scholars argue that the liberal, Sufi-affiliated Islam that most Somalis practice makes it very unlikely that a government sympathetic to the Wahhabi will emerge in Somalia as the Taliban did in Afghanistan.)

I’m fascinated by Somalia in part because I don’t know who’s right. There’s a strong argument to be made that the UIC has brought a little peace and stability to a nation that’s seen very little of each in the past two decades. The presence of UN peacekeepers is clearly provocative to UIC forces, who say they’ll consider UN troop “an invading force” – does it make sense to try to destabilize the one force that’s provided stability in Southern Somalia in the past decade. On the other hand, UIC is not an elected government – just the most powerful warlords to come into Somalia and stabilize the country. And the news regarding UIC fighters in Lebanon is deeply worrying to anyone who is concerned about failed states.

But it’s a little hard for me to take Bolton’s argument too seriously:

Outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said not intervening was not an option.

“The other option is that the instability we have seen in Somalia for over 15 years would spread to the region,” he said.

“I think the choice of doing nothing is really not a choice at all.”

Uh, John? Somalia’s been a failed state for 15 years. We’ve done nothing in that time to stabilize the country after being scared off after the battle of Mogadishu in 1993. The country was a haven for piracy, smuggling, cheap diplomatic passports, small arms and all other sorts of bad stuff for the past dozen years… and much of that bad stuff is in decline under the UIC. Is Somalia on the US’s agenda at the UN because we’re suddenly concerned about the security concerns that failed states raise? Or is this a way for the US to show the globalization of the “war on terror” by supporting an effort we know we won’t be contributing troops towards?

21 thoughts on “UN peacekeepers in Somalia – is that a good thing?”

  1. Are the UIC the most powerful warlords, or is part of their success due to the repulsive-but-apparently-effective religious component that nets them either more support, or at least less opposition?

    Or is the reduced opposition, assuming it is reduced?, due to terror because of the barbaric punishments?

    If the Somalis are “liberal” and Sufi-leaning, where the hell do public floggings and, no doubt, all the accompanying sharia horrors fit into the picture?

    An informative post, but there are so many things I don’t know, I need even more help!

  2. If the UIC says “we don’t want UN peacekeepers” then there will be no peacekeepers, because the UN only goes in if all involved local parties accept UN peacekeepers. If one party says “No” then there is no agreement for the UN to enforce, thus no peacekeepers on the ground. This has been the way the UN has worked for years. Am I missing something? Is there actually a chance that the UN will go in to create a peace rather than to enforce a peace?

  3. Quixote, it’s really complicated. The more I learn about the situation, the more confused I get. There’s been a good bit of coverage about how impressed many observers have been with UIC – they’ve accomplished a great deal that’s positive, and I’m inclined to think that their version of Sharia may be quite different from Taliban Sharia…

    a517dogg, I don’t know how the UN will consider UIC’s view given that they’re not an elected, legitimate government. But I agree – if arriving as peacekeepers would spark a shooting war, it’s very unlikely that troops will be deployed. Which is kinda what I was suggesting at the end of the post – that there’s a large extent to which this is Bolton’s political posturing, not an actual resolution which will put troops on the ground.

  4. Thanks, Ethan. The situation sounds grimmish, but possibly less grim than it was. I exchanged messages a couple of years ago with a Somali who was living in the capital, and his descriptions of the difficulties of life with no government, even a bad one, were horrifying.

    Another thing: I find the objection that UIC weren’t elected to be downright funny. Bit of a Catch-22, if recognizable governments all have to be elected, but your country is too lawless to hold elections.

  5. I find Bolton’s claim that “doing nothing is really not a choice at all” rather hard to stomach, given the lukewarm response to the obvious catastrophe in Darfur over the past several years. Perhaps he’d be satisfied with doing _almost_ nothing in Somalia, that’s been the Darfur approach.

  6. I’m very surprised by Bolton comment that Somalia has been ignored for a long time and by sending UN troops that would change everything. Being a Somali myself i would prefer if he kept his nose out of it. For once since 1991 Somalis are leaving in peace in areas controlled by the UIC. Their achievement includes kicking out war lords who had turned once beautiful Mogadishu and surrounding areas into one of the most dangerous place to live. They have stopped piracy of the cost of Somalia. They have taken weapons from those who used to abuse others. They have given back properties that were forcefully taken from their owners by criminals with guns. I’m not saying UIC are all good but if u have lived somewhere where there is no law all then any law is better than no laws.

  7. As far as I remeber, Sub-Saharan African Islam has tended to be the more liberal sufi version for a long time. That is changing though. And I can’t help but wonder if foreign influences have anything to do with that.

    e.g. in Ghana the Iranian government is building islamic schools in the predominantly Muslim(and poor) north

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  9. IIRC the idea that UIC fighters were serving with Hizbullah has been rubbished on the basis it would be extremely difficult to bring several hundred people from Somalia to Lebanon without anyone noticing, along with the fact that Somalis are Sunni while Hizbullah is Shia. I’m afraid I can’t remember where I read this.

  10. What baffles and frustrates me is that the word “government” is reserved for the impotent parliament in exile in Baidoa. Surely the UIC is now the de facto government of much of Somalia, both more popular and more effective.
    Apparently it’s impossible for Western governments to read the “I” in “UIC” as standing for “terrorist”. Surely, the UN should be supporting the fragile peace the UIC are building in Somalia – not threatening it.

  11. ERRATUM: I meant to say the following:

    Apparently it’s impossible for Western governments not to read the “I” in “UIC” as standing for “terrorist”.

    (in my original comment, I forgot the word “not”. d’oh)

  12. I think the UN report on Somalia was a disgrace and clearly politically motivated. The Israelis were puzzled by the idea that 700 Somalis (black, skinny guys who don’t speak Arabic) have fought along-side Hezbollah without them noticing. The UIC took over Mogadishu few months before the Hezbollah/Israel war, could they spare 700 of their men? And so was the accusation of Iran and Syria, these two countries have had little to do with Somalia in the past 17 years (Egypt, Saudi, Yemen, Eritrea and Ethiopia would be a more convincing list).

    The security resolution is useless, at least for the coming few months. Only IGAD members were suppose to contribute, excluding the immediate neighbors Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya. You’re the left only with Eritrea, Uganda and Sudan; only Uganda pledged to send troops. Other details, like who is going to pay for the mission wasn’t discussed either. Kofi Annan urged African countries willing to send troops to Somalia to convince UIC first that they will not be an invading army.

    UIC have done some great things in Mogadishu and much of the area they control, but they’re far from a uniting force within Somalia. They existed for years as courts without any army to fill the gap left by the collapse of the government, and now they’re only in the areas where the warlords they’ve defeated had previously controlled, no more no less.

    UIC isn’t like the Taliban at all in their origins or goals and they’re much more limited in their reach, remember the Taliban’s goal was to take over the whole of Afghanistan, UIC can’t do it.

  13. Other commentaries have covered some of my points and I will not repeat them, but I would like to reassert that it is self interest and a choice of ‘the lesser evil’ for the Americans. Yes John Bolton will step aside, but the State Department still exists, who sets the policy and statements he made at the UN. THis will be the case for his seccesor, therefore, what has changed is not the policy, but the messenger.

    As for the Islamic Courts (UIC), they are to be commended for their efforts, for they have brought about change, positive ones, and have stood up to the warlords, unlike the TNG who embraced them. There was great change, change that the government was reluctant and unable to bring about. There were no more spot checks, pirating, murders etc.
    Are they perfect? NO, but they were on the right track. THey accomplished what the Americans and The UN were unable to in 1993: Control. And not just small parts of the country but a good majority.
    External intervention is coming at a time it is not needed. Plus, they should have supported the TNG government, when they were pleading for help in the past several years, before the movement of the UIC. In the past, America refused to assiste them, and they were reluctant to assist them due to their ties with warlords and for making them minister (corruption and lack of accountability too). Now it is still that same government. What has changed? It is fear of the influence the UIC will have domestically and internatially, especailly in Africa and the Middle East.
    Also, besides the ‘lesser evil’ policy, there is oil in the country. Is that not what the ‘war on terror’ is about? Another option for energy. Read this globe and mail article: JACQUIE McNISH
    Wednesday, May 10, 2006 . THey say that Somalia “may be sitting on some of the greatest oil and gas treasures” in the world. Here’s the link: https://secure.workopolis.com/servlet/Content/fasttrack/20060510/LAW10?section=Legal
    Until next time……Let the Somalis handle their own destiny. Long live the people of Somalia. I leave you with these quotes:

    Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.
    Malcolm X
    You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.
    Malcolm X
    “Of all the races of Africa there cannot be one better to live among than the most difficult, the proudest, the bravest, vainest, the most merciless, the friendliest; the Somalis” Gerald Hanley, Warriors

  14. For any Somali, the idea that an Ethiopian backed governemnt could legitimately govern Somalia is as ridicolous as a Mexican or Black American governing USA. The let’s bury the idea of Abdullahi Yousuf and his Ethiopians.

    Now, about the UIC, so far the main problem we have with them is the Islamic. For God sake Somalia is Moslem country! Somalias is also a Nomadic country, which means our culture comes before religion.

    So, let’s accept UIC and forget the CIA polemics. We need our culture, our religion and we will form Somali style government in our own time.

    Ethiopia please get out. You have 30 million Oromas and 10 million Somalis in your country – the last people you want to fight with is a Somali. Within days you will have All FIVE SOMALiS plus Afars, Oromos and Eritrean fighting with you. I did not mention Yemen and the greater Arabs. YET!


  15. IRIN has produced a new film “Somalia: A State of Need”(18 mins) taking a balanced look at the situation in Somalia, the current humanitarian situation and the impact of the Islamic Courts on ordinary people. The film includes rare footage of life in Mogadishu and the rural south.

    It is viewable online at: http://www.irinnews.org/film/

    Given the fragile situation in Somalia and the importance of the issues, we are also interested in finding new ways to distribute it online in a higher-resolution format.

    We are experimenting and are offering a Bit Torrent download of the film at 640×480 size in MPG format. The file is about 450 MB. Please contact irinfilms@irinnews.org if you are interested and could help us seed the file too.

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