Dan SimpsonFour briefers — from the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Army War College and the State Department — provided background. Although the humanitarian problems of drought, food insecurity and severe underdevelopment are common across the Horn of Africa, most attention since 1991 has been paid to Somalia. (Other countries considered part of the Horn include Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and, to a degree, Sudan.)Somalia has not had a government since January 1991. Since then, its problems may have cost the world as much as $55 billion to try to solve — largely without success. What has happened for the past 20 years to make the place such a mess is still not generally understood — in the United States, in the rest of Africa and in Somalia itself.One American briefer inaccurately described the group that likely would be ruling Somalia if it weren’t for U.S. military interference as “radical Islamists.” Another said U.S. policy amounted to “African solutions for African problems.” This, too, does not correspond to reality, as it ignores U.S. backing of foreign invasions and occupying forces, air and drone strikes, and other U.S. operations in Somalia.Yet another U.S. briefer — clearly a dreamer — said current U.S. policy offers a “road map” to elections in Somalia in August of next year and the end of a “transition.” In the meantime, the United States is providing substantial military assistance to African Union troops in Somalia from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, which are propping up what is euphemistically called a Transitional Federal Government. The TFG’s shelf life in the face of its al-Shabab opponents without the protection of AU forces is generally estimated at about 15 minutes, in spite of considerable U.S. and other training and equipping of Somali government forces.There was a moment of relative tranquillity and stability in Somalia in the middle of 2006. At that point there was in power a body called the Islamic Courts government. It was a patchwork of locally based councils of moderate Islamists, adapted to the clan and subclan structure of the Somali people.The United States concluded, on what basis may never be known, that the Islamic Courts government was too Islamic for its tastes so it backed a military assault on Somalia by the Ethiopians — whom the Somalis hate — supported by U.S. intelligence and air assets. Down the Islamic Courts government went, only to be replaced by al-Shabab, a much more militant Islamic group, when the Ethiopians found Somali hostility more than they could bear. Al-Shabab would be ruling the place now if the Somalis were left to their own devices.
The U.S. military role in Somalia was strengthened by the creation in 2008 of a new U.S. Africa Command, based in Stuttgart, Germany. This body needed a war to fight in Africa to justify its size and budget.If there were a coherent government in Somalia, there would be little or no piracy, since that phenomenon depends for its existence on chaos. Also partly a creature of chaos is the dire humanitarian situation, which includes some 4 million Somalis in need of food and other support, of whom 250,000 are in danger of starvation.On the day of the student conference, fighting heated up in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, with government and AU forces facing off against al-Shabab, causing multiple casualties. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon paid a surprise visit there Friday and announced that the United Nations would move its Somalia office from Nairobi, Kenya, to Mogadishu in January.Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412 263-1976). More articles by this authoRead more: