Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Fighting Fire with Gasoline

The Somalis bestow the local version of flowers and candies on their putative liberators - a display of gratitude reminiscent of our own experience in that country some 15 years ago:

Fifteen people have been killed in heavy fighting in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, where angry crowds dragged soldiers' bodies through the streets.

Crowds kicked the dead bodies and set them alight.[...]

Shabelle reports that one was a Somalia government soldier, the other an Ethiopian fighter.

Correspondents say the scenes evoke memories of events in 1993 when the bodies of US soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by militiamen. [...]

Somalia enjoyed a six-month lull in the insecurity that had dogged the country for the past 16 years when the [Union of Islamic Courts] UIC took power last year.

But insecurity has returned to the city and the UN estimates some 40,000 people have fled from Mogadishu since February.

Despite the notably brutal, if familiar, treatment of foreign troops (and collaborators) in Somalia, the latter part of this BBC News report refers to the more essential narrative: the situation in that country has proven to be bloodier, less stable and less tolerable for its citizens since the ruling Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was toppled by an invading Ethiopian army as buttressed by US air power and on-the-ground military assistance.

With the debacle in Iraq further cementing its position among the worst - if not the worst - foreign policy blunders in US history, many erstwhile supporters and even some longtime opponents are beginning to bristle at the frequency and repetitive nature of the myriad post-mortems. Yet if our experience in Somalia is any indication, more, not less, repetition is needed - at least until we begin to internalize the key lessons to be taken away from our experiences in Iraq.

One such lesson concerns the limited efficacy of military solutions to intractable, region-wide problems. It's not that use of the military is never warranted (far from it), but we must recognize what this tool can and cannot accomplish. Toppling a regime is quite possible. Sticking around and ensuring that something stable, peaceful and reasonably friendly emerges and consolidates power in the aftermath...not so much.

So we should assess, on a case-by-case basis with careful attention paid to the variables, whether or not we can accept the probable post-invasion vacuum of power that will result, and whether we will be able to maintain any leverage over the situation sufficient to affect the trajectory of the aftermath.

If we can't keep a lid on the chaos or control the next phase, then chances are we shouldn't get involved (with some limited exceptions). Because the costs are significant (not just in terms of economic assets and human lives). The sizable amount of negative blowback and loss of goodwill attendant to military action must be factored into the equation as strategic costs each time. People tend not to react well to invasion and occupation or even the less involved aerial bombardment - each with inevitable collateral damage. This indigenous hostility builds up even if the assault was undertaken "in the best interest" of the locals. As Bush might say, some people just don't know how to show appreciation.

Similarly, our involvement in Iraq should serve as a reminder that, despite the moral failings and brutality of a given regime, our attempts to improve on the situation are not a given and we can often make matters worse or only provide for improvements at the margins (all at tremendous cost in human lives, global standing, diplomatic capital and economic resources as mentioned above).

To argue that Saddam was an odious and murderous leader, while not controversial, should not be enough to establish a casus belli - or better yet, persuade us that an invasion would be in our interests. The case only becomes marginally more compelling when his hostility to the US is factored in. Not only did our military involvement fail to guarantee that a more enlightened regime would take the reins of power post invasion, but there is also no assurance that the resulting regime will be substantially friendlier to our interests.

In the end (or rather beginning), the pragmatist's questions must be asked and answered in terms of the possibility of achieving goals at acceptable costs. Simply spotlighting an area of concern or shining light on a repressive regime should not lead, reflexively, to the preparation and execution of military plans. On the contrary, the overarching guidance should be: use the military very selectively - with caution and circumspection - be sure to factor in the chaos that will likely occur in the aftermath and be certain that there is a close correlation between objectives and underlying capacity.

Sadly, little if any of that analysis was applied to our engagement in Somalia. The ICU is a regime that one would be hard pressed to praise with any zeal or frequency. The ICU espoused a brutal form of religious rule that showed little respect for basic human rights, human life and basic freedoms. Still, pointing this out does not satisfy the requirements for military engagement - nor does it, alone, justify our active, direct support for Ethiopia's military incursion (a nation with its own interests vis-a-vis Somalia that conflict, in many key areas, with our own).

The ICU was a terrible regime compared to, say, Sweden's, but life under the ICU was better for Somalis than the current state of affairs (and that which immediately preceded it). Further, the US wasn't generating mass resentment for its prior non-involvement, nor held to blame for the evils of the ICU. The US will, however, be viewed as a causal factor of the chaos that has reigned in the aftermath of Ethiopia's invasion, and be closely associated with the actions of that nation's military forces (a curious choice for a regional representative to say the least).

As the BBC article points out, there was relative stability for the 6 months of ICU rule in Somalia generally, and Mogadishu in particular, compared to the previous 16 years of warlordism that plagued that nation. The ICU was far from ideal, but given Somalia's relentlessly chaotic and bloody recent past, it at least exhibited the virtue of bringing a relative calm to the nation. Somalis themselves have communicated this fact both in print and with their feet as evidenced by the massive flow of refugees out of Mogadishu over the past couple of months.

For a sample of Somali reactions to the recent fighting and the comparison to life under the ICU, you can check out this archived post I created as a compilation from some BBC sources. While most commenters decry the resurgence of warlord violence and widespread lawlessness, Jonathan Edelstein (who is one of the more erudite bloggers in the sphere, if not yet managing partner) warns about an even greater danger:

The peacekeepers' task will be especially difficult given that Somalia is retreating, not to the state of warlord-ruled semi-anarchy that preceded the Islamic judiciary's takeover last June, but to something considerably worse. The warlord era wasn't peaceful by any means, and ordinary citizens lived at the mercy of arbitrary extortion, but full-scale warfare of the type that occurred during the civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s was rare. The factional fighting that has arisen in Somalia since the Ethiopian invasion is at a much higher level, with the resurgent warlords and clans overshadowed by the rising insurgency, Ethiopian and American security interests and a developing regional proxy conflict. The last time Somalia was a battlefield in a cold war, the result was the Siad Barre regime and a near-genocidal civil war, and if there's a reprise of that now, eight thousand peacekeepers won't be able to do much to stop it. [emphasis added]

For a nation such as Somalia that is confronting a history of prolonged conflict, the potential for creating positive momentum is enhanced by the imposition of stability - even if the guarantor of calm is less than an ideal regime. Within the space created by a lull in the violence, attempts at instituting broader, more responsive, state institutions - and administering aid and other amelioratives - can be better executed. The resumption of active economic life and the larger sense of normalcy's return can go a long way toward rolling back a culture of violence if given enough time, and space, to take root.

Legitimately problematic issues that Somalia's neighbors (as well as the US) may have with the ICU could then be addressed through diplomatic and economic levers after the stage is set, rather than interrupted through the use of the crude instrument of military force. As Edelstein points out, the recent violence isn't merely a case of "back to square one" in terms of warlordism and clan-based fighting. It's worse. Somalia may be regressing to levels of violence not seen in decades. Which, considering Somalia's recent track record, is saying a lot. Anyone want to guess what that will do for our interests in the region?

Again, I ask: What is it good for?

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