The Long and Hidden History of the U.S in Somalia

by Stephen Zunes

AlterNet, January 21, 2002


The East African nation of Somalia is being mentioned with increasing frequency as the next possible target in the U.S.-led war against international terrorism. With what passes for the central government controlling little more than a section of the national capital of Mogadishu, a separatist government in the north, and rival warlords and clan leaders controlling most of the rest of the country, U.S. officials believe that cells of the Al-Qaida terrorist network may have taken advantage of the absence of governmental authority to set up operation.

Before the United States attacks that impoverished country, however, it is important to know how Somalia became a possible haven for the followers of Osama Bin Laden and what might result if the United States goes to war.

As one of the most homogeneous countries in Africa, many would have not predicted the chronic instability and violent divisions which have gripped Somalia in recent years. During the early 1970s, Somalia was a client of the Soviet Union, even allowing the Soviets to establish a naval base at Berbera on the strategic north coast near the entrance to the Red Sea. Somali dictator Siad Barre established this relationship in response to the large-scale American military support of Somalia's historic rival Ethiopia, then under the rule of the feudal emperor Haile Selassie. When a military coup by leftist Ethiopian officers toppled the monarchy in 1974 and declared the country a Marxist-Leninist state the following year, the superpowers switched their allegiances, with the Soviet Union backing the Ethiopia Dirgue and the United States siding with the Barre regime in Somalia.

In 1977, Somalia attacked the Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia in an effort to incorporate the area's ethnic Somali population. The Ethiopians were eventually able to repel the attack with large-scale Soviet military support and 20,000 Cuban troops. Zbigniew Brzezinski, then-National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter, has since claimed that this conflict sparked the end of détente with the Soviet Union and the renewal of the Cold War.

From the late 1970s until just before Siad Barre's overthrow in early 1991, the U.S. sent hundreds of millions of dollars of arms to Somalia in return for the use of military facilities which had been originally constructed for the Soviets. These bases were to be used to support American military intervention in the Middle East. The consequences of U.S. military support for the Barre regime on the Somali people was deemed of little importance by American policymakers. The U.S. government ignored warnings throughout the 1980s by Africa specialists, human rights groups and humanitarian organizations that continued American aid to the dictatorial government of Siad Barre would eventually plunge Somalia into chaos.

These predictions proved tragically accurate. During the nearly fifteen years of support by the United States and Italy, thousands of civilians were massacred at the hands of Barre's increasingly authoritarian regime. Full-scale civil war erupted in 1988 and the repression increased still further, with clan leaders in the northern third of the country declaring independence to escape government persecution. In greatly centralizing his government's control, Barre severely weakened traditional structures in Somali society which had kept civil order for many years. To help maintain his grip on power, Barre played different Somali clans against each other, sowing the seeds of the fratricidal chaos to come, which in turn would contribute to mass starvation and spur the ill-fated humanitarian intervention by the United States in 1992.

Meanwhile, by eliminating all potential rivals with a national following, a power vacuum was created by Barre that could not be filled when the U.S.-backed regime was finally overthrown in January 1991, an event barely noticed outside the country as world attention was focused on the start of the Gulf War. With the end of the Cold War and the United States now granted bases in the Persian Gulf itself, Somalia fell briefly off the radar screen of U.S. foreign policy.

There is widespread agreement among those familiar with Somalia that had the U.S. government not supported the Barre regime with large amounts of military aid, he would have been forced to step down long before his misrule splintered the country. Prior to the dictator's downfall, former U.S. Representative Howard Wolpe, then-chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, called on the State Department to encourage Barre to step down. His pleas were rejected. "What you are seeing," observed the Congressman and former professor of African Politics, "is a general indifference to a disaster that we played a role in creating."

A U.S. diplomat who had been stationed in the Somali capital of Mogadishu acknowledged, "It's easy to blame us for all this." But, he argued, "This is a sovereign country we're taking about. They have chosen to spend [U.S. military aid] that way, to hurt people and destroy their own economy."

As the United States poured in more than $50 million of arms annually to prop up the Barre regime, there was virtually no assistance offered that would have helped build a selfsustaining economy which could feed Somalia's people. In addition, the United States pushed a structural adjustment program through the International Monetary Fund which severely weakened the local agricultural economy. Combined with the breakdown of the central government, drought conditions and rival militias disrupting food supplies, there was famine on a massive scale, resulting in the deaths of more than 300,000 Somalis, mostly children.

In November 1992, the outgoing Bush administration sent 30,000 U.S. troops, primarily Marines and Army Rangers, to Somalia in what was described as a humanitarian mission to assist in the distribution of relief supplies which were being intercepted by armed militias without reaching the civilian population in need. The United Nations Security Council endorsed the initiative the following month. Many Somalis and some relief organizations were grateful for the American role. Many others expressed skepticism, noting that the famine had actually peaked that summer and the security situation was also improving gradually. At this point, the chaos limiting food shipments was limited to a small area; most areas functioned as relatively peaceful fiefdoms. Most food was getting through and the loss from theft was only slightly higher than elsewhere in Africa. In some cases, U.S. forces essentially dumped food on local markets, hurting indigenous farmers and creating greater food shortages over the longer term. In any case, few Somalis were involved in the decisions during this crucial period.

Most importantly for the United States, large numbers of Somalis saw the American forces as representatives of the government which served as the major Western supporter of the hated former dictatorship. Such an overbearing foreign military presence in a country which had been free from colonial rule for only a little more than three decades led to growing resentment, particularly since these elite combat forces were not trained for such humanitarian missions. (Author and journalist David Halberstam quotes the U.S. Secretary of Defense telling an associate, "We're sending the Rangers to Somalia. We are not going to be able to control them. They are like overtrained pit bulls. No one controls them.") Shootings at U.S. military roadblocks became increasingly commonplace and Somalis witnessed scenes of mostly white American forces harassing and shooting their black countrymen.

In addition, the U.S. role escalated to include attempts at disarming some of the war lords, resulting in armed engagements, often in crowded urban neighborhoods. This "mission creep" resulted in American casualties, creating growing dissent at home in what had originally been a widely-supported foreign policy initiative. The thousands of M16 rifles sent, courtesy of the American taxpayer, to Barre's armed forces were now in the hands of rival militiamen who had not only used them to kill their fellow countrymen and to disrupt the distribution of relief supplies, but were now using them against American troops It wasn't long before the slogan of American forces was "The only good Somali is a dead Somali." It had become apparent that the U.S. had badly underestimated the resistance.

The United States passed the mission on to the United Nations in May the following year, marking the first time the world body had combined peacekeeping, peace enforcement and humanitarian assistance. It was also the first time the UN has intervened without a formal invitation by a host government (because there wasn't any.) But Somalis had little trust of the United Nations, either, particularly since the UN Secretary General at that time was Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a major supporter of Barre when he led Egypt's foreign ministry. U.S. forces, now leading the UN mission, went on increasingly aggressive forays, including a major battle in Mogadishu which resulted in the deaths of 18 Marines and hundreds of Somali civilians, dramatized in the highly-fictionalized thriller Black Hawk Down. The U.S.-led UN forces had become yet another faction in the multi-sided conflict. Largely retreating to a fixed position, the primary American objective soon became protecting its own forces. With mounting criticism on Capitol Hill from both the left and the right, President Bill Clinton withdrew American troops in March 1994. The United Nations pulled its last peacekeeping forces out one year later.

The U.S. intervention in Somalia is now widely considered to have been a fiasco. It is largely responsible for the subsequent U.S. hesitation about so-called humanitarian intervention outside of high-altitude bombing. It was the major factor in the tragic U.S. refusal to intervene either unilaterally or through the United Nations to prevent the genocide in Rwanda during the spring of 1994. The Somalia intervention was most likely an ill-advised assertion of well-meaning liberal internationalism, though there may have been other factors prompting the American decision to intervene as well: perhaps as a rationalization for increased military spending despite the end of the Cold War; an effort to mollify the Islamic world for American overkill in the war against Iraq and the inaction against the massacres of Muslims in Bosnia; and possibly as a preemptive operation against possible Islamic extremists rising out of the chaos. If the latter was the goal, it may have backfired. Islamic radicals were able to find some willing recruits among the Somalis, already upset by the U.S. support for Barre, now additionally angry at the destruction wrought by direct U.S. military intervention in their country.

In subsequent years, there has been only marginal progress towards establishing any kind of widely-recognized national government. Somalia is still divided into fiefdoms run by clan leaders and warlords, though there is rarely any serious fighting. Some officials in the current Bush Administration believe that Al-Qaida has established an important network or active cells within this factious country.

If this is indeed the case, it begs the question as to how the United States should respond. It is possible that U.S. forces have access to remarkably accurate intelligence and would be able to pinpoint and take out the cells without once again becoming embroiled in the messy urban counter-insurgency warfare of 1993-94 or relying on air strikes in heavily-populated areas, which would result in large-scale civilian casualties. Based on the current methods employed by the Bush administration to combat terrorism, however, this is rather doubtful. The result of renewed U.S. military intervention in Somalia, then, could be yet another debacle which would only encourage the extremist forces we are trying to destroy.


Stephen Zunes is the Midde East analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus ( and associate professor in the department of politics at the University of San Francisco.

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