Choosing Chaos Over Stability in Somalia

How can we assess the justification for war when we don’t have the basic facts?

An Islamic militiaman in Mogadishu, Somalia

In the “Background Notes” the State Department provides for every nation in the world, I could find only one country labeled with the following description: “Government Type: None.” Somalia.

The page was last updated in October 2006, and recent developments might present the officials tasked with bringing it up to date with an interesting dilemma: Can they now give the country some hope in the form of a more conciliatory description? Maybe “Government Type: Interim.” Or “Government Type: Foreign-Assisted.” Or “Government Type: To Be Announced.”

The war in Somalia has entered a second stage. Now that the “hot war” is over, Islamist militiamen are trying to escape Ethiopian forces by sneaking into neighboring Kenya or taking off their uniforms and blending with the civilian population while promising to keep the battle alive by other methods, namely insurgency. But the government question is far from settled, and neither are the questions about the role of the United States in the conflict engulfing the Horn of Africa. Answers are hard to find for many reasons, but chief among them is the information gap.

The story of the war in Somalia can be told in two very different ways, and the facts are so elusive that one should approach the process of forming any opinion about it with proper humility. The biggest gap is the one concerning the most crucial piece of information: To what extent is the Islamic Courts Union—the Islamist rebel movement that was the de facto ruler of Somalia until a week ago—a front for al-Qaida’s global terrorist network? The answer to this question is the key against which every action of every player has to be measured.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer presented the al-Qaida case most clearly. She accused the ICU of being controlled by “East Africa Al Qaeda cell individuals.” That’s a serious accusation. Where did it come from? She didn’t say. They never do when “intelligence” is involved.

Is the information reliable? If so, how reliable? Is it as reliable as the WMD information that led to the Iraq war? Was the information gathered by U.S. agencies and officers, or is it something the Ethiopians provided to the United States? You have to trust Frazer, since no other source can confirm the accusation. Maybe some evidence will present itself soon. That is, if the forces deployed in Somalia are able to catch the three al-Qaida suspects wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in East Africa who are believed to be with the ICU. But as long as the al-Qaida question is up in the air, judging Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia and the support it received from the United States is impossible. Was it justified? Was it smart?

If Frazer’s information is reliable, and the Islamists are indeed “controlled” by al-Qaida, the justification for war is clear and quite convincing: You can’t expect policy-makers to let Somalia fall into terrorist hands unchallenged—that could result in a second incarnation of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Writing about Somalia for Ha’aretz a couple of days ago, I focused on the many similarities this war has with the areas of conflict in the greater Middle East:

Like in the Palestinian Authority, the local population received some benefits from the Islamists’ takeover. … [L]ike in Israel’s war in Lebanon, Ethiopia is acting in Somalia with the blessing of the Americans. … Somalia’s neighbors, Eritrea and Ethiopia … are using its territory to settle other accounts, just as Iran, Syria and Israel did in Lebanon. … Like in the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Lebanon, forces greater than Somalia are involved in the struggles. … The … government, which is recognized by the West … cannot control the state of which it is nominally in charge.

But what if Frazer is wrong—or was exaggerating, or was manipulated—as many in Somalia and even more in the broader Muslim world believe? What if the Islamic Courts Union is more about stability than hostility? In that case, things are quite different: Here’s a country with no law and no government; mired in poverty, violence, and hunger; to which a coalition of Muslim gangs—some of them religious extremists—brought a sense of stability and order.

In the broader Muslim world, America’s proxy involvement in Somalia is perceived as yet another attack on Islam by outside forces. “After occupying Iraq, and sowing division-threatening anarchy in Lebanon, Palestine and Sudan, now it is Somalia’s turn,” declared an editorial at Alarab Online Sunday. True, the ICU didn’t promise the country a Western-style democracy or a liberal constitution. They seemed quite, well, fanatical, and some activists made comments that upset their neighbors.

But the Islamic Courts Union never got to the stage of taking hostile actions against Somalia’s neighbors, and those neighbors—and their American allies—were no less upsetting when they supported the corrupt warlords in a failed attempt to prevent the ICU from consolidating power.

If there was a chance for a new Somalia to emerge under the ICU—extremely religious but with the functioning government the country has lacked for the last decade and a half—it has gone now. The ICU has already announced that it will return with different insurgency-style tactics; the government doesn’t seem capable of controlling the country without help; and help—well, help is the most sought-after, but least obtainable, commodity in the international market these days.

“If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm,” a Yiddish proverb goes. What America chose in Somalia was not to help build something, but rather to destroy a potential promise that was also a potential threat. It chose chaos over stability, anarchy over order. Short of a miracle in the desired talks between the rival factions, Somalia is returning to the state it was in six months ago: chaotic, miserable, and mostly forgotten.

And truth be told, this might have been the right choice for America. But the proof of such a claim has not yet been presented to the general public.