Goals in Somalia Are Noble, but Unachievable

When President Bush launched Operation Restore Hope to feed starving Somalis, I was one Somali-American who celebrated the generosity of my adopted country.

And when President Clinton, after the successful accomplishment of the American mission to feed Somalis, turned the management of Somalia to the United Nations, I was full of hope that the rehabilitation and the reconstruction of Somalia would take place under American leadership.


It is obvious, however, that Somalia isn't getting any closer to becoming a rehabilitated nation. And the United States is slowly and painfully discovering that feeding hungry Somalis is one thing; teaching them how to peacefully govern their war-torn country is quite another.

In southern Mogadishu, gunmen loyal to the fugitive warlord Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid conduct almost daily ambushes and nightly shelling against international peacekeepers. So far, nearly two dozen Americans have been killed, along with more than twice as many peacekeepers of other nationalities. Somalis, too, have been killed, including women and children said to be "combatants" because they are used as "human shields" by General Aidid's gunmen.


Each time Somali civilians are killed in Mogadi- shu, the international aid agencies scream that peacekeepers are using "excessive force" in their attempts to restore peace and order. And each time American soldiers are gunned down in Mogadishu's mean streets, members of Congress call for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Somalia.

The Clinton administration's objectives in Somalia were defined by Defense Secretary Les Aspin as restoring order in southern Mogadishu, creating a Somali national police force and establishing a Somali government that can lead the country.

Are these goals achievable? If so, should most of the burden fall on American shoulders? And if not, should the United States withdraw its troops from Somalia before it gets sucked deeper into Somalia's ancient tribal warfare? I am no longer optimistic.

Restoring order to southern Mogadishu is almost impossible. The U.N. goal of seeking to neutralize General Aided has backfired. His sub-clan (the Habar Geder of the Hawiye clan) occupies most of southern Mogadishu and will protect its general or, failing that, will raise up a successor to exact revenge against the peacekeepers.

The history of Somalia abounds with guerrilla campaigns waged by various clans against foreign armies. Many of General Aidid's kinsmen are already comparing him to Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, the "Mad Mullah," who led a religiously based nationalist movement against the British Empire in the early decades of this century. General Aidid's clansmen would rather be wiped from the face of the earth than submit to the U.N. and be humiliated in front of other Somali clans. Given that neither the U.N. nor the U.S. is willing to commit genocide against a single Somali clan, peace and order are unlikely to be restored in southern Mogadishu.

The goal of creating a Somali police force is also chimerical. There are not enough Somalis whose clan loyalty can be replaced by a brand-new loyalty to a state institution, such as a national police force. Somalis who join such a police force are more likely to use their authority to extort money from civilians and businesses. If such people are given arms, they may use the weapons to advance their clan interest in the next civil war. In any case, lightly armed policemen can hardly keep peace in a country where the collapse of the central government dispersed heavy military weapons (tanks, missiles, AK-47 assault rifles, etc.) into the population.

The third goal of establishing democratic government led by Somalis, while certainly noble and ambitious, cannot be attained in the lifetimes of most of us. Like most Africans, Somalis, the nomadic people who settled in the Horn of Africa, have never had the experience of living in a democratic nation-state. Their small regional or city states generally were established by military conquest and were often clan exclusive.

The arrival of the European colonial powers replaced Somalia's little tribal states with bigger republics that were multi-tribal. In 1960 northern Somalia, which had been under the British, and southern Somalia, ruled by the Italians, formed the united Somali republic that lasted less than 30 years. When the regime of Siad Barre collapsed three years ago, Somalia, unable to exist as a nation-state, disintegrated into mini-states that resemble its historical and pre-colonial past.


In short, the Clinton administration's Somalia goals are noble, but unachievable. Americans will not be able to make a nation-state out of clan-riven Somalia. American troops should be withdrawn before more of them are killed. So what if such a move would be interpreted by General Aidid and his supporters as victory. We should remind ourselves that we did not go there to win a war, but to feed starving people.

Abdul Abdi a Somali-American is a contributor to Diversity & Division, a quarterly journal on culture and race.