Somalia, 1992 – Libya, 2011
The Globe and Mail
May 07, 2011
Above: A young Somali smokes and holds a weapon as he and his friends sit on a car December 14, 1992 in Baidoa, Somalia. Below Libyan rebels smoke cigarettes as they begin a morning patrol in Al-Ghiran near Misrata airport on May 1, 2011.
Are they really as different as we imagine? When Canada and other nations first intervened in war-torn Somalia, it was with the same hopes that now guide NATO`s aid to the rebellion against Gadhafi. But it soon became a disastrous, never-ending quagmire. Geoffrey York returns to Mogadishu to find it just as dangerous nearly 20 years later (but now including an al-Qaeda-aligned force vowing to avenge Osama bin Laden), and wonders when the West will learn its lesson
MOGADISHU -- It was supposed to be proof of how peace and stability have progressed in Mogadishu: For the first time, a small group of foreign journalists would be permitted a brief walk in the streets of the world`s most dangerous city. The public-relations officers who polish the image of the African Union military force in Somalia (known as AMISOM) boasted that the city was now safe enough for us to stroll freely.
It turned out to be a tightly guarded, 500-metre hustle from the gate of the airport military base to another heavily guarded military post. We were required to wear body armour and helmets, and military vehicles rumbled alertly behind us, while the PR people urged us to hurry up. Somali civilians laughed and waved, but we were told there was no time to talk to them.
Everywhere else in Mogadishu, we travelled like the rest of the soldiers – in South African-made Casspirs, massive armoured vehicles with V-shaped hulls to withstand land mines and improvised explosive devices. Through the tanks` murky windows, the civilians were silent shadows, beyond hope of contact.
Somalia`s vicious street war has changed little in the 19 years since my first visit to Mogadishu. The combatants have new names, the technology has evolved, but this city remains a shattered urban battlefield. The front lines still snake through the bombed-out shells of its once-grand villas, just as they did in 1991. The gunmen still aim their weapons from sandbagged slits, crumbling walls and ruined rooftops.
And, as he has for years, Osama bin Laden still exerts a hold here, even from his grave: Al-Shabab, the Islamic militant army that controls much of Somalia, is among the world`s biggest remaining strongholds of al-Qaeda influence.
As the Canadian government sends its warplanes roaring over Tripoli in an ostensible mission to protect Libyan civilians (and continues to fight in Afghanistan), it may have forgotten the lessons of Somalia. This impoverished nation in the Horn of Africa was the prototype for “humanitarian intervention” – the concept of using military force for humanitarian ends, the same rationale that is used to justify the Libya adventure.
After the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, Somalia was the first country where the West experimented with these idealistic new notions. In 1992, the United States and Canada gambled that their military muscle could protect millions of civilians from political chaos and clan fighting. It was a gamble that largely failed.
What you find in Mogadishu is not the high-tech war of Libyan skies. This is the trench warfare of the First World War. The 9,000 Western-armed troops of the African Union are waging a painfully slow battle, fighting from house to house, advancing only a few hundred metres on the best of days, and then consolidating their positions with mountains of sandbags as they wait for the inevitable counterattacks from the Islamic militants. To defend its gains, AMISOM deploys its soldiers every few metres along a network of newly dug trenches, where they sleep and fight in 12-hour shifts, rarely leaving their posts.
Today, almost two decades after Canadian and other Western troops rolled into an apparently welcoming Somalia, the country is still trapped in a quagmire of war and despair. At least 400,000 people have been killed since the war began.
Despite pouring billions of dollars into the country, despite years of direct and indirect intervention – first with its own military forces, later with a supply of guns and money for the United Nations and AMISOM “peacekeeping” troops – the West still cannot find a way to stabilize and secure Mogadishu, let alone the rest of the country.
For most of the past 20 years, Mogadishu has remained the world`s most lethal and chaotic city. Somalia is perpetually on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe, with one of the world`s highest rates of child malnutrition. And now it is fuelling a piracy epidemic: Its unemployed young men are terrorizing the seas, hijacking ships and seizing hostages.
After the death of Osama bin Laden, hundreds of people marched in celebration in the AMISOM-controlled section of Mogadishu. But they were carefully guarded by government troops. The militants of al-Shabab, who killed 76 people in a bombing in Uganda last year, have threatened revenge attacks for the killing of the al-Qaeda leader.
Having intervened in 1992 and failed to fix the crisis for two decades, the West cannot wash its hands of the Somalia mess. And as a key contributor to the original failed intervention, and a financial contributor to the subsequent UN efforts here, Canada cannot ignore Somalia either.
Above: A USC Clan fighter poses 15 May 1992 with his missile system downtown Kismayu. Below: Libyan rebels man a checkpoint in the outskirts of the eastern city of Ajdabiya on May 1, 2011.
Reports of successes may be exaggerated
Knowing that they need foreign support to survive, the AMISOM peacekeepers and their UN allies have launched a charm offensive, hiring two British public-relations firms to lobby the international media. They took us to the front lines of Mogadishu, where we spent two days inspecting the latest territorial gains.
The situation was sometimes confused and chaotic. At one forward position, our convoy came under a sudden volley of fierce fire. Our Ugandan military escorts fought back with the heavy machine guns mounted on the top of our armoured vehicles, until we were finally ordered to retreat.
Elsewhere on the front lines, AMISOM soldiers crouch behind walls of sandbags, in trenches or bombed-out houses, amid a cacophony of gunfire. They stare down the scopes of their assault rifles into the concrete jungle beyond. When they see a flicker of movement, they squeeze the trigger. A moment later, invariably, a rebel fighter replies, and there is the whine of an incoming bullet, a lethal reminder that the militants of al-Shabab are still here, concealed in their maze of trenches and foxholes, just a hundred metres away.
AMISOM claims, after its latest offensive, that it now controls 60 per cent of Mogadishu. The claim may be exaggerated. Certainly its losses have been heavy. An estimated 50 to 80 of its Ugandan and Burundian troops were reportedly killed in the latest offensive. But there is no official confirmation of the casualty numbers, because AMISOM refuses to discuss it. “We don`t want to demoralize our soldiers,” said one senior officer, on condition of anonymity. “It would give courage to the enemy.”
Somalia`s transitional federal government, backed by AMISOM and the West, controls only a portion of Mogadishu and none of the rest of the country. Its leaders recently proclaimed that the rebels are “on the verge of collapse.” Yet last month the Somali parliament postponed elections for three years because the situation is too dangerous for voting to be held. Médecins sans frontières, one of the few remaining relief agencies in Mogadishu, decided this spring to withdraw after two consecutive grenade attacks on its compound in an AMISOM-controlled district of the city.
It`s an old story. I`ve been hearing about “turning points” in Somalia since my first visit. Each new military intervention or new coalition government is touted as a turning point for the country. A recent report by the International Crisis Group estimated that at least 14 peace processes have been held in the past two decades to try to bring stability to Somalia. None has succeeded.
Somalia has become the world`s longest-running case of complete state collapse. By the reckoning of some analysts, even al-Shabab is providing more government services (and collecting more taxes) than the official government.
How `Restore Hope` became `Save Face`
I remember the optimism of the early days. I was there in 1992 when Canadian troops landed in Hercules transport planes, and when U.S. troops waded ashore on Mogadishu`s beaches in what was grandly called Operation Restore Hope. They met no resistance, only hordes of excited cameramen from Western TV networks, who mobbed the American soldiers as they dug their foxholes on the beach.
At first, the intervention seemed to be working. My hired car came with a gang of armed youths who poked their Kalashnikovs out of the car windows to protect the vehicle, but at least it was possible to move independently.
Within a few months, though, by the middle of 1993, the U.S. troops had become embroiled in a disastrous attempt at nation-building. The Pentagon picked sides in the clan fighting and supported one of the Somali warlords, which soon triggered the catastrophe of Black Hawk Down, the heaviest U.S. combat loss since Vietnam.
Months before the Black Hawk Down battle, I talked to a U.S. Army captain, David Johnson, who had studied the Horn of Africa for years. He told me that Western troops were outmatched by the complexities of Somalia and its intricate system of clan relationships. He was right.
“We have a simple desire for simple solutions, and all of a sudden we`re playing chess with Boris Spassky,” Capt. Johnson told me as we flew on a military transport plane over Somalia. “We may not realize it when we look at their mud huts, but this is the big leagues.”
The Somalis regarded the foreign military coalition as just another clan to be incorporated into their system, he said. “They could just take their chess pieces off the board until we leave, and then put them back on.”
Again, he was proved right. The foreign troops packed up and went home, and the Somali clan militias and warlords moved back in.
Meanwhile, Canada`s military was haunted by revelations that some of its soldiers had participated in the torture and beating death of a Somali civilian. The elite Canadian Airborne Regiment was disbanded in the wake of the scandal. And in Somalia, the fighting continued, along with more failed attempts to intervene.
Back in those days, the front line between the warlords in Mogadishu was known as the Green Line. Today, the AMISOM troops call it the Forward Line, and it separates the troops from the Islamic rebels. The front lines have shifted by a few blocks over the past 19 years. Otherwise, only the names and the geographic details have changed.
Today`s foreign troops are called peacekeepers, just as they were in 1992, and the term is as misleading now as it was then. “You can`t be a peacekeeper when you`re under attack every day,” says the AMISOM spokesman, Major Barigye Ba-Hoku. “You can`t even call it peace enforcement. It is war. Look how many soldiers, how many bullets and how much time is needed for us to capture even one block of Mogadishu.”
In the fashion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the latest international scheme is to create a domestic army to replace the foreign troops. Thus, AMISOM`s current plan is to train a Somali military force to take control of national security. The newly forged Somali army is supposed to be neutral, without allegiance to any clan or religious faction. The young recruits are trained by European and Ugandan officers, often in Kampala or other foreign cities, and their wages are paid by foreign funds.
Abdullah Omar Farah, a 25-year-old army recruit from Mogadishu, was trained for nine months in Uganda last year. Until then, he had spent virtually his entire life in a state of war. He was stunned by what he saw in Uganda. “For nine months, I didn`t hear a single bullet,” he said. “I couldn`t believe it. That`s what I dream of here. People have been dying here every day since 1991. Many of my relatives have died in this war.”
Yet the project, so far, has been a dismal failure. Officially, there are 10,000 troops in the Somali army. But only a small fraction are of any value. “The majority are sick or old or incapacitated,” says the Ugandan contingent commander, Colonel Michael Ondoga.
As well, the troops are often unreliable. Many don`t even bother to wear military uniforms. Their AMISOM commanders are scathing.
“I don`t normally take them to strategic points,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Anthony Mbuusi, a senior Ugandan officer. “We could end up shooting at each other because they are dressed the same as the enemy.”
And Col. Ondoga questions the recruits` loyalties. “There are cases where they take commands from their warlords, not from us,” he says. “When they recover guns from the enemy, they should send them to the central authorities, but instead they keep the guns. It`s a problem for me, because they`re not under my control.”
The AMISOM commanders would prefer to have reinforcements from experienced armies across Africa. So far, only Uganda and Burundi are supplying troops; other countries have repeatedly delayed their contributions.
Last year, AMISOM asked for its 8,000-strong contingent to be increased to 20,000. But the UN approved an increase of just 4,000, which will bring the total force to 12,000 soldiers when all of the reinforcements arrive in the next few months. This won`t be enough to secure the city.
“It cannot be done by 12,000 troops,” admits Major-General Nathan Mugisha, the AMISOM force commander in Mogadishu.
AMISOM has asked for better equipment, including helicopters, an obvious lack here. But the Western powers that provide the money are preoccupied with Libya and other crises.
“The world has neglected this place for a long time,” Gen. Mugisha says. “Maybe the powers that be have no special interests here. If there was plenty of oil, I think they would be here.”
A very recent Mogadishu photo, showing the shattered ruins of the city (almost like Stalingrad).
On the streets, Gen. Mugisha is facing a tough and battle-hardened enemy. The Islamic rebels have introduced new tactics over the past year: suicide bombers, improvised roadside bombs and elaborate networks of trenches and tunnels. All of this, he believes, originated from foreign fighters who have joined al-Shabab and imported the insurgent tactics that have proved successful in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
“We are confronted with the latest technology in the world,” he says. “Look at their firepower and the money behind it all. They`re being replenished from the air and the sea.”
Even if AMISOM gets more help, it cannot win this war with heavy weaponry and troop reinforcements alone. This is also a battle for the hearts and minds of the Somali people. Many Somalis are deeply angered by the “collateral damage” caused by AMISOM`s artillery and tank weapons. Hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed or wounded by AMISOM during its attacks on the rebels.
In a bullet-scarred building near the front line, Lance-Corporal Richard Magona picks up a child and offers him sweets. “We have to show them love,” he says. “We show them that we are not the bad guys – we are protecting them from al-Shabab.”
But it is hard to win that struggle when Somalia`s official authorities still lack any democratic mandate from the people. Created by foreign exiles, the parliament and government are both unpopular. Each one`s term was due to expire this August, but was unilaterally extended – the 550-member parliament has extended its mandate for a further three years, giving it 10 years of rule without elections. The United States has called this “self-serving political manoeuvring.” The UN envoy to Somalia called it a constitutional crisis.
Meanwhile, the parliament and government themselves are bitterly feuding in a damaging power struggle. “Their confusion will continue to undermine our efforts,” Gen. Mugisha says. “I pray that they find a solution.”
Somalia`s newly appointed Prime Minister, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is a former New York State bureaucrat who has lived in Buffalo, N.Y., for most of the past two decades. He argues, with remarkable optimism, that Somalia will be peaceful enough for national elections by next year.
To bolster his pitch for financial support, Mr. Mohamed argues that Somalia is crucial to the global fight against terrorism and piracy. He complains that the international community is focused too much on Afghanistan: “The disease here is the same as in Afghanistan. The cure is to have a very strong central government.”
Not everyone agrees. Some analysts say the expanding AMISOM presence in Mogadishu could actually boost the popularity of al-Shabab, allowing the militants to portray themselves as patriots fighting a foreign occupation.
And the International Crisis Group, a respected think tank, says the idea of a European-style centralized government in Somalia is deeply flawed. It says the official regime is “a caricature of a government” – inept, dysfunctional, bloated, increasingly corrupt and hobbled by weak leadership. It urges the international community to consider shifting all of its aid to regional Somali governments, such as those in Puntland and Somaliland, which are less corrupt and more effective.
There`s no simple fix
The Somalia disaster, still unfolding after two decades, is a reminder that military intervention is never a simple solution, whether in Libya or anywhere else.
No matter how easy it first seemed in Libya, the use of military force is always highly complex and dangerous, and it always carries the risk of deteriorating into an intractable quagmire.
The Canadians who landed in Mogadishu in 1992 were as optimistic as those who ordered the Libyan intervention: They thought that they could drag a new nation into existence within a few months.
But even if the Western-backed rebel movement in Libya is able to reach Tripoli and overthrow Moammar Gadhafi, the questions will only have begun: As in Somalia, there is the risk of a long-lasting insurgency, block-by-block urban warfare, factional feuding, humanitarian collapse, heavy civilian casualties, foreign militant fighters and the dilemma of how to build a new nation in a badly divided society.
Back at the front lines of Mogadishu, not far from the snipers and trenches, I stumble into an odd scene.
A group of Burundian soldiers have gathered in an abandoned room to sing church songs, practising for their Sunday services.
But in a destroyed city, faith sometimes falters. One senior AMISOM officer, who has served in Mogadishu for years, admits that he does not believe in God any more.
He gestures around him, at the shattered city and shattered people: “Where is the God for these people?”
Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail`s bureau chief
in Africa, based in Johannesburg.
WESTERN INTERVENTION REPORT CARD
The military intervention failed to end the civil war among Somali clans, and the Western-led coalition became embroiled in clan rivalries, while failing in its goal of nation-building.
KOSOVO March-June, 1999
Refugees were accidentally bombed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization warplanes and hundreds of civilians were killed, but Yugoslav troops withdrew from Kosovo and the war led to greater democracy in Serbia and Kosovo.
The Taliban are still not defeated; the Western-backed government is weak, unpopular and highly corrupt; but Afghanistan is no longer a hotbed of terrorist training camps.
There were massive civilian casualties from the factional war that the invasion stirred up, and thousands of U.S. troops are still on the ground today, but a semi-democratic, pro-Western government has been established.
LIBYA March, 2011-present
The military intervention has succeeded in preventing Moammar Gadhafi`s troops from crushing the rebel movement, but it has become bogged down in a long battle against the Gadhafi forces, with no clear exit strategy.
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A group of Libyan rebels ready to leave on patrol to check for positions held by fighters loyal to Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi near the airport at al-Ghiran close to the key port city of Misrata on April 30, 2011