What’s the US Army doing in the Horn of Africa?
Periodically pounding the crap out of Somalia, sure, but the larger story is a bit more complicated.
You get a free pass if you hadn’t noticed that Somalia became the US’s third major front in the “war on terror”. It’s been poorly covered by global media, in part because it’s virtually impossible for American or European reporters to operate in Mogadishu. (That said, Al Jazeera English is covering the story closely, and is probably the best source for stories day to day.) As International Crisis Group’s Colin Thomas-Jensen points out in this interview with On The Media, it’s possible to cover the story from Djbouti or from Somaliland, but most newspapers don’t.
For those of you in need of a quick refresher: Somalia hasn’t had a functioning central government since 1991. There’s been a “transitional federal government”, backed by the UN and other international entities, but it wasn’t able to control the capital until very recently. For much of 2006, Mogadishu was controlled by an alliance of warlords called The Union of Islamic Courts. The UIC managed to pacify Mogadishu, but was criticized by some nations for curtailing civil liberties. Neighboring Ethiopia, which backs the TFG, was worried that the UIC would invade the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and try to create a “greater Somalia.” On Christmas Eve 2006, with US intelligence support and likely support from US Special Forces, Ethiopia invaded Somalia and installed the TFG in Mogadishu.
Unfortunately, as the US (should have) learned in Iraq, taking over a country isn’t the same thing as governing it. Most Somalis hate the Ethiopians, who they’ve fought two wars with – having Ethiopian soliders hold the capital isn’t an option. The AU has provided a small number of troops to secure Mogadishu, but they’re coming under fire from heavily armed warlords.
321,000 refugees have fled Mogadishu since February – these are people fleeing the chaos in the city after the fall of the Union of Islamic Courts, not the invading Ethiopian and US forces. The US, targetting “foreign fighters” and “Al-Qaeda sympathizers”, has launched missle attacks on Somali territory as recently as early June.
I’ve found this situation, especially the US involvement in the situation, very hard to understand as I’ve read about it over the past year. Tom Barnett‘s recent article in Esquire, “The Americans Have Landed“, provides some extremely useful context for people fascinated by the US military’s relationship to sub-Saharan Africa.
Barnett is in an interesting position to report on US military strategy in Africa. For six years, he served as a Professor in the US Navy’s War College and spent a great deal of time briefing senior Pentagon officials on the need for the military to get good at rebuilding nations, not just killing bad guys. His slide deck on transforming the military from a “leviathan” capable of conquering the Russians or the Chinese in a land war to a “sysadmin” capable of quickly pacifying “disconnected” nations and increasing stability, using both traditional forces and groups that work on reconstruction, became a highly influential book, The Pentagon’s New Map. (For more on Barnett and his work, you may find my notes on his talk at Pop!Tech in October 2004 useful, or from last year’s Pop!Tech talk.) There’s a very real sense in which the US military strategy in Africa is one that he’s recommended… which makes it a bit odd to read his report on it.
Barnett argues that the military is trying to do two things simultaneously in the Horn of Africa – pound the crap out of any Al-Qaeda-connected forces in Somalia, and build long-term, trusting relationships with the people of the countries where they have bases, notably Djbouti and northern Kenya. Needless to say, there’s a conflict between these two strategies: “There’s a lot of concern here that the establishment of Africa Command may do more harm than good – the poised hammer that makes everything suddenly look like a nail.”
The portrait Barnett paints of the US military’s efforts in Kenya is a sympathetic one – he shadows Army Captain Steve McKnight, an affable guy who appears to be doing everything right, making hundreds of friends within the local population by acting more like a Peace Corps volunteer than a warrior. But it’s his analysis of the Somali situation and the strategic logic for the military to be in Africa that’s most interesting and provocative:
After being ignored since the beginning of time (save for its slaves and its treasure), Africa just got strategically important enough for us to care about. And the Bush administration’s decision to set up Africa Command is historic, but not for the reasons given or assumed.
There aren’t enough Islamic terrorists in Africa to stand up to a full combatant command. If all we wanted were flies on eyeballs, a small number of special-operations trigger pullers would have sufficed for the forseeable future.
American is going to have an Africa Command for the same reason people buy real estate – it’s a good investment. Too many large, hostile powers surround Central Asia for the radical jihadists to expand there, but Africa? Africa’s the strategic backwater of the world. Nobody cares about Africa except Western celebrities.
So as the Middle East middle-ages over the next three decades and Asia’s infrastructural build-out is completed, only Africa will remain as a source for both youth-driven revolution and cheap labor and commodities. Toss in global warming and you’ve got a recipe for the most deprived becoming the most depraved.
You may wonder why, after two weeks of “Africa rising” blogging here, I’m now quoting a thinker who puts forth lines like “the most deprived becoming the most depraved.” The main reason is that Barnett, due to long engagement with Pentagon thinkers, is a believable source when he gives you insights into US military thinking. If most of non-celebrity America is ignoring Africa, it’s worth noting that the US military is not, if only because they’re projecting some very ugly long-term scenarios where poverty and weak governance leads to a need for military intervention.
What’s most interesting in Barnett’s article is watching him confront the challenge of implementing his vision for military transformation. To carry out the functions Barnett believes the military – in cooperation with aid agencies, diplomats and humanitarians – should engage in to strengthen nations, the military needs the trust and cooperation of the communities it operates in. But the fact that the military base houses a special operations unit – guys whose job it is to show up and kill bad guys – goes a long way towards raising local suspicion. And interventions like Somalia – all killing, no building, and carried out with as much secrecy as possible – go a long way towards eroding the sorts of relationships Barnett believes are so important to build.