Thursday, December 11, 2008

Is the US heading back to Somalia?

Is the US about to go ashore in Somalia?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will present a draft resolution to the UN next Tuesday calling on countries already involved in the region to "take all necessary measures ashore in Somalia" to fight the growing piracy problem in the east African country. Pirates operating out of lawless Somali ports have seized dozens of ships this year, holding them, and their crews, for ransom. The pirates are causing serious problems for the world's shipping lines, which use the route off of Somalia as the fastest way to travel between Europe and Asia and the Persian Gulf.

In one sense Rice is right - the piracy problem can only be truly solved from the shore: the pirates have to lose the ports they use as bases and safe havens, the nearly non-existent Somali government is far too weak to do the job, so foreign forces are really the only way to tackle the problem. But this seems like a situation that could all too easily turn into yet another quagmire for US forces.

We finally learned the lesson in Iraq that it is basically useless to go into a city if you have no intention of holding it or turning it over to local forces who are unable to maintain security in it (see the first four years of the Iraq War, especially the city of Fallouja for more examples). So what would likely happen in Somalia is that US forces would go into one of the Somali pirate ports, there would be a small fight before the pirates retreated to the hills to wait until the Americans left, and once they did the pirates would return and get back to business as usual. That's why it's easy to see US forces getting bogged down in Somalia as they stay onshore trying to keep these Somali ports secure. Remember that Somalia is the setting for the movie "Black Hawk Down", which of course was based on the true story of the US mission in the Somali capital Mogadishu that turned from a humanitarian relief effort into a fight against Somali warlords that ultimately left18 servicemen dead.

The Somali government is incredibly weak and likely about to get weaker. Two years ago Ethiopian troops invaded southern Somalia and drove an Islamic group, the Union of Islamic Courts, from Mogadishu, letting the Somali provisional government return. But in the two years since the Somali government has lost control of almost all of southern Somalia to a collection of Islamic groups that splintered off from the UIC. The Ethiopians, who have been fighting a guerilla war against the Islamists on behalf of the Somali government decided it's had enough and announced a sudden withdrawal of their troops by the end of the year, leaving only an under-manned peacekeeping force from the African Union standing between Mogadishu and the Islamist rebels. The African Union is also now asking the UN to step in and send more troops.

We'll see if the UN decides to step up and send in the forces needed to deal with the piracy problem in Somalia, or if it becomes one last quagmire for the Bush administration.
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