Revisiting Somalia
A Hidden U.S. Agenda?
By Sharif Nashashibi

The defining moment in relations between Somalia and the United States in the last decade was the 1993 killing of 18 American military in the capital Mogadishu, and the subsequent evacuation of U.S. forces from Somalia.

This was portrayed as Somali rejection of a peacekeeping mission, but subsequent release of information indicates the deaths were a direct result of a seventh botched attempt to capture the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aided, in which hundreds of Somalis died.

After preliminary military successes in Afghanistan, there is now growing speculation that America is gunning next for Somalia.

The speculation has been fueled by numerous high-ranking government officials, most recently by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who told the New York Times on January 7 that Somalia "fit the bill of a lawless state that draws terrorists like a magnet."

The Western media and public have largely bought the U.S. line that this is a widening of the "war on terror" against a country with alleged links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. However, deeper investigation points to a possible ulterior motive: domination of East Africa.

Currently, Sudan and Somalia are the only regional countries not allied to the U.S., whose friendly relations with Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Eritrea seem secure, despite the latter two's recent wars.

Since U.S. missile strikes on Sudan five years ago (which resulted in the ousting of bin Laden), and especially since September 11, Africa's largest state has been keen to avoid potential confrontation with the world's lone superpower, attempting to shed its image as a "sponsor of terrorism" and thus stem U.S. support for southern rebels.

Behind the Image

Since 1993, the U.S. has accused this impoverished state of harboring terrorists. "Somalia has been a place that has harbored al-Qaeda and, to my knowledge, still is," said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

The problem is, his "knowledge" is based on information from Ethiopia, the U.S. embassy in Kenya, and Somali rebels.

"Ethiopia has long been Somalia's main rival in the region and its foreign policy is always aimed at keeping Somalia weak and divided," wrote Richard Dowden, a writer on African affairs, in the December 13 edition of the British newspaper The Guardian.

Indeed, Ethiopia, which has been urging the U.S. to extend the "war on terror" to Somalia since September 11; invaded its eastern neighbor in 1996 (capturing and killing hundreds) and 1999; has done so again in the last few months; and actively supports anti-government rebels such as the Rahanwein Resistance Army.

In August 2000, "a long drawn out peace conference ended in the nearest thing that Somalis have ever had to a broad-based national government," said Dowden. "Ethiopia immediately started supporting its rivals, powerful warlords like Hussein Aided, son of Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and Mohamed Hersi Morgan, a war criminal who destroyed Hargeisa City 10 years ago."

James Astill, the Guardian's East Africa correspondent, adds: "Ethiopia is actively trying to destabilize its ruined neighbor out of a long-standing, partly justified, fear of the effect a united Somalia would have on its own 3,000,000 ethnic Somalis."

He says that "to strike Somalia on Ethiopia's advice would be like invading Pakistan on a tipoff from India."

Dowden describes this as "a classic case of U.S. allies telling Washington that their local enemies are terrorists ... and, it seems, the Americans are willing to listen."

Furthermore, Astill says that "no [U.S.] embassy staff have visited Somalia or admit to having learned anything about terrorism since the attacks" of September 11.

The only U.S. presence in Somalia since its peacekeeping operation ended seven years ago came December 9, 2001 in the form of military personnel, accompanied by high-ranking Ethiopian officials.

The only impartial party on the ground, the United Nations, says there is no terrorist activity in Somalia, as has the country's government. "To the best of our knowledge there are no camps of any terrorist groups in Somalia, and no links with al-Qaeda," said President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, a vocal supporter of multiparty democracy. Some might doubt his sincerity, were it not for the fact that his government has invited the U.S. to carry out investigations.

Transport Minister Abdi Guled Mohamed unequivocally reiterated this willingness to help. "We have said since September 11 that we want to help," he said. "If the Americans say there are terrorists in Somalia, they should tell us how they know this. If there are terrorists here, then we will put them in prison, put them where they belong. We will work with the Americans to fight terrorists."

However, this pledge of assistance has fallen on deaf ears. "It would be good if it was a bit happier to cooperate," said Hassan.

Under Cover?

Which brings us back to the central question: How can the U.S. justify targeting Somalia with no concrete evidence and a seeming unwillingness to accept an official offer of assistance?

It's a dubious proposition.

The U.S.'s "war on terror" seems increasingly like a cover for its re-entry into the Somali arena and domination of East Africa, its actions pointing more toward attempts at destabilizing Somalia's UN-sponsored government, which it does not recognize.

Besides liaising with the government's local and regional enemies, the U.S. is causing severe economic disruption to one of the world's poorest states by ordering the closing down of Barakaat, a flourishing telephone and banking system that handles between $300 million and $500 million a year in remittances from Somalis living abroad to sustain their families. The U.S. justified this move by claiming that Barakaat had been used by al-Qaeda.

"Do you close down a telephone company because a criminal used it to make a call?" asked Dowden.

Washington has also declared the Somali Islamic movement al-Itihaad a terrorist organization. Al-Itihaad emerged in 1991 as one of numerous warring militias, and its aim was the establishment of an Islamic state. However, its military operations ended with its defeat in 1997 by invading Ethiopian troops. Since then, it has become Somalia's leading provider of education, judicial, health and welfare services, all scarce and badly needed in a country experiencing an extensive drought in the south and half a million people reportedly facing severe food shortages there.

The Somali government and the UN deny that al-Itihaad undertakes terrorist operations or has any links with al-Qaeda. "We have seen no connections between al-Itihaad and al-Qaeda," said Randolph Kent, the UN's resident coordinator for Somalia. "Nor for that matter have we seen any evidence of the terrorist activity which is exciting the rest of the world."

Making economic and political life in Somalia difficult could well signal a U.S. effort to further social unrest and the eventual toppling of the government, in favor of an administration more amenable to Ethiopian interests and, in turn, those of Washington. Indeed, Walter Kansteiner, the U.S. Undersecretary of State for Africa, claims ominously that some members of the Somali government "could well be al-Itihaad people." Furthermore, warlords pulled out of peace talks in Nairobi on December 14, "apparently in the expectation of U.S. support," says Astill.

Such measures may avail the U.S. of the need to take direct military action, or soften its enemy in the event of such action. The purposes behind them can be seen as akin to the vice-like sanctions regime imposed on Iraq, although whether they will succeed where they have failed against Saddam Hussein is questionable. The plan could just as well backfire, compounding public sentiment in a country deeply resentful of past U.S. involvement and suspicious of its intentions.

Follow the Money

But U.S. resolve is likely being driven by its success in Afghanistan and the repercussions beyond its borders. After all, the U.S. found and courted enthusiasm for its war in Afghanistan among the Central Asian states, in particular neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which support anti-Taliban Afghan forces and are fighting their own Islamic insurgents.

Winning over a traditional Russian sphere of influence has not only been a U.S. aim since at least the start of the Cold War, but will also strengthen its hand where Caspian oil supply is concerned, giving it a decisive edge in its "pipeline war" against Russia and Iran.

Thus when one sees the regional gains made by the U.S. in its wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not difficult to draw parallels to Somalia, and to understand the deep-rooted fear and suspicion in the Arab and Muslim worlds that behind the "war on terror" is a strategy of attaining regional dominance and compliant allies, regardless of local and humanitarian consequences.

l Leave No Man Behind
'Black Hawk Down' brings war home
By Mario M. Muller

If you read the book, you know this
happens around page 69.

Only the dead have seen the end of war.

By placing this ominous quote at the beginning of Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott sets the tone for 2 plus hours of some of the most exquisitely photographed and emotionally torturous war films ever made.

"War is Hell" might in fact be a cliché, but clichés are nothing more than over-used truths. In Scott's agile cinematic rifle, this truth is aimed at the heart, the mind and the gut of each person sitting in the darkened theater.

The director understands that to succeed means balancing this triumvirate of targets in a most effective way by never resting on one too long. He also effectively resists putting these emotional targets in any sort of hierarchical value system.

The intellect is targeted by effectively sketching out the back-story. We need to know what was going on in Somalia in 1993 and the couple of years preceding the United Nations' "Peace Keeping" involvement and the U.S. interventions.

Under the torrents of civil war, more than 300,000 Somalians had lost their lives, primarily from starvation.

The warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and a band of ruthless renegades stole food relief sent by the West intended for the Somali population. By doing this, he furthered his campaign of terror and suppression.

The plan, as devised by Major General William Garrison, was to kidnap two of Aidid's valued associates from a hotel in the heart of the most hostile territory in the capital of Mogadishu. In the cold and clinical light of army headquarters, it seemed like a realizable endeavor and an assignment that should take no longer than a couple of hours.

As it turned out, 18 harrowing hours later, two Black Hawk helicopters had been shot down, 18 American soldiers had lost their lives and 73 Americans were injured. The fact that over a thousand casualties were incurred on the rebel's side is merely ash in the mouths of each audience member.

The complexity of the story is thoughtfully laid out in the first twenty minutes of the film. The remaining two hours is dedicated to the battle, the lethal miscalculations of resistance, and the several failed, and final successful attempt at extraction of our combat troops. ("Leave no man behind" is the slogan used in the trailer.)

The exposition is vital. It not only makes us care for the nobility of the American objectives, it also plants the seeds of futility in our collective, cognitive hearts.

Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan lay this intellectual groundwork with amazing speed and authority.

There are some terse texts that, quickly read, lay out a banquet of trouble. Two scenes (one visual, one verbal) help flesh out the stage. The action sequence is of American troops surveying the intended distribution of famine relief. Aidid's thugs fire upon and kill their own countrymen in the thievery as American troops watch helplessly from their vantage point in circling helicopters. Their hamstrung directive is not to fire unless fired upon. The dialogue scene is deftly delivered between General Garrison (played by Sam Shepard) and an arms dealer who is Aidid's main supplier.

With the intellect properly nourished, Scott takes us into battle with a cast of fine actors who, not so much portray soldiers, but shape-shift into young heroes on the screen. The action is relentless with nary a moment of calm for a sartorial smoke. Visually the film delivers not only the operatic nature of airborne helicopter attack - this time set to Stevie Ray Vaughn's rendition of Hendrix' "Voodoo Child" - but also the claustrophobia of being surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of armed and fearless enemy militia.

Soldiers shoot in all four compass directions and kill their enemy with each shot. A sense of dread engulfs the audience and makes the heroic actions of the soldiers on screen all the more palpable.

One never thinks that being burned by shell casings is a danger in war. But in a scene when a deluge of scorching hot casings rain on a soldier from a strafing Nightstalker helicopter providing cover less than 50 feet above, your only reaction is to wince and recoil.

Towards the end of the film, when there is even a hint of possible calm, an audible collective sigh emanates from the audience as a realization descends that, yes, you have been holding your breath for an hour and a half. Never has arrested aspiration been at better service for cinematic culture.

With the mind and the gut sufficiently engulfed, Scott never loses sight of the heart. Thankfully though, he pulls the heartstrings in only the subtlest fashion. Calls to home with answering machines recording last messages from battle bound soldiers could sound hokey, but it's merely a grace note. In a hangar being briefed for the assignment ahead, one notices a lone soldier sucking on an asthma inhaler. Again, this is just another grace note that makes these larger-than-life heroes human and vulnerable.

The cast successfully defines what it means to be part of a great ensemble at the service of a story and filmic experience. Sure, there are plenty of great moments delivered by the macho and photogenic congress of thespians, however not one of them pulls a star-turn that lessens the accomplishments of the others by grandstanding.

Josh Hartnett's pretty boy demeanor (which will no doubt resurface in this spring's 40 Days and 40 Nights) all but disappears into the camouflage of the Delta Force fatigues. Sam Shepard is stoic dignity as the general who watches his endgame implode from video surveillance equipment at headquarters four miles away. Tom Sizemore must be a glutton for punishment. He has donned the khakis twice before for Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor, and seriously wielded weapons in Heat and Wyatt Earp. True to form, Sizemore delivers again. This time he's a beleaguered Ranger Lieutenant Colonel whose adrenaline provides oblivious blinders to the zipping and zinging bullets that pass him like a swarm of flies.

Black Hawk Down is not for the over-sensitive or squeamish. The film pulls no punches. And the jabs, hooks and uppercuts it lands will leave you pummeled and deeply moved. War might be hell, but delivering an accurate vision of war through cinematic expertise spells heaven in the movie theater.