The Somali tragedy
When I was in graduate school, I had a friend named Steve who had served on a naval vessel off the coast of Somalia during Operation Restore Hope. The combined UN and US humanitarian operations in Somalia during the early nineties are best remembered for leading to the “Black Hawk Down” operation that led to the deaths of 19 American servicemen, several of whose bodies were subsequently paraded and dragged through the streets.
Despite the tragedy, I never saw our efforts in Somalia as a failure — a view shared by Steve, who took pride in his role. The combined U.N.and American intervention in Somalia saved, by some estimates, up to 100,000 Somali lives. To call the mission a failure is to suggest the grim calculus that an American life is worth more than 5,000 Somali lives.
Now, eighteen years later, Somalis again face starvation in large numbers. Tens of thousands have already died, and hundreds of thousands are likely to die in the months to come. Although aid groups in the area have attempted to provide aid, opposition from Islamist Al Shabab militants in the affected areas have greatly hampered efforts to feed the hungry. Influenced by a xenophobic Al Qaeda ideology that hates and fears “Western influence” more than it values mass numbers of human lives, it is unlikely that Al Shabab leaders will permit levels of foreign aid that do more than make a small dent in the famine.
The crisis has largely been ignored in the American media — and in some ways understandably so, because it seems like little that can be done. There is no government that can be pressured into averting the impending catastrophe. Although I am not dissuading contributions to charities attempting to help Somali famine victims, it is not clear that either governmental or nongovernmental organizations will be able to effectively make aid available to those in need.
Just as our intervention in the early nineties was the right thing to do, so too would a measured U.S. military intervention to protect aid supplies be the “right” thing to do now. The UN would never be able to garner the political will to send in peacekeeping troops, and the United States is one of the few countries with the capacity to deploy troops in a timely fashion. It is, however, not 1993, and the American public is far too conflict-weary after a decade of deployments and thousands of lives lost in foreign land to ever support such an intervention.
One of the few feasible measures the Obama administration can take is to pressure the African Union to expand its efforts beyond its small foothold in Mogadishu and into the countryside. This would require a rapid increase in the number of available troops (currently about 9000 are deployed there), operational financing, and offshore logistical support that could be offered by the U.S. Navy. It would take at least the will to “lead-from-behind” as we did in the Libyan conflict.
Sadly, I don’t have much hope that such an operation could take place in the little amount of time available. Even if it were feasible, it is unlikely that the African leaders would be willing to deploy and risk the lives of so many of their own forces in a humanitarian effort without any pressing national interests.
Short of any military operation to protect relief supplies, the only thing the world community can do is make it known to the leaders of Al Shabab that it views the organization as responsible for the hundreds of thousands of people under its control. Al Shabab leadership is unlikely to be shamed by outside criticism, but global protest will at least focus attention on the fact that those affiliated with Al Qaeda are once again bringing misery and death to the Muslim world. Absent a sense of global outrage, Somalis are certain to continue suffering and losing their “worthless” lives, with hundreds of thousands of deaths barely registering a shrug of resignation from the world around them.