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Somalia is important to America
African country reflects Iraq and Afghanistan
The parallels to Iraq and Afghanistan are so obvious, it's as if history has quickly repeated itself. There's the presence of American military in a Muslim country. There's the hunt for members of al Qaeda. There's the warning from the camp of Osama bin Laden that it will "break (the) back" of the United States and its allies. And there's the suspicion among critics that U.S. involvement is really about oil.
But instead of Baghdad and Kabul, the capital of this failed state is Mogadishu. And instead of the world holding its collective breath to see what happens, there's a din of silence. Or at least a muted response that surprises those who think the events in Somalia should make the East African country a priority for anyone concerned about the domino effect of global affairs. What happens now in Somalia could lead to a wider war in the strategically important horn of Africa that eventually draws in the United States and Europe for years.
"There is a need to secure this country," says the United Nations' special envoy to Somalia, Francois Fall, in a phone interview from Nairobi.
Last week, a U.S. Air Force gunship flew over Somalia and fired on suspected al Qaeda targets -- at least the second time Washington has launched air strikes since it helped depose the country's Taliban-style government four weeks ago. The last time the American military was in Somalia so deeply was 1993, when its troops patrolled a country whose warlords were vying for control of Mogadishu. In October of that year, Somali militants killed 18 American servicemen in the now-famous "Black Hawk Down" battle, which prompted President Clinton to withdraw all U.S. forces in March 1994.
For 12 years, Somalia continued to be a chaotic, lawless country, which is why some Somalis initially welcomed the Union of Islamic Courts, the extremist government that took control of Mogadishu last July and brought a measure of safety and stability to the country. But Said Samatar, a Somali American professor of history at Rutgers University, says that government implemented Draconian measures: Music was banned; soccer was banned; taking photos of people was banned; the chewing of qaat, a leaf that produces a natural buzz, was banned; and women were required to wear black veils.
Somalia is 100 percent Muslim, but most Somalis are moderate, and they resented the government's dictates, says Samatar. Complicating matters: The government was controlled by the Ayr, who are one of Somalia's ethnic sub-clans. Somalia is divided into four main ethnic clans and many sub-clans, who are (generally speaking) more loyal to their clan than to any religious ideology.
Somalia may be perceived as a country of violent, al Qaeda loyalists (the movie version of "Black Hawk Down" certainly fueled this impression), but most Somalis rejected the way bin Laden's organization tried to use their country as a beachhead against the West. Because most Somalis also rejected the government's use of radical Islam to maintain power, they welcomed the intervention of the United States and Ethiopia -- two powers that sometimes have been enemies of Mogadishu.
Cabdi Daahir, a Somali American who lives in Santa Clara, is among those who supported the military action that chased the Ayr-led government from power. Daahir takes issue with Ayman alZawahiri, al Qaeda's No. 2, who said in a speech released last week that Bush's "slaves" would be killed and driven from Somalia.
For Somalis, their country's connection to its Arab neighbors can be a sensitive issue. Somalia is a member of the Arab League, and its proximity to Yemen and Saudi Arabia gives it a pan-Arab identification. But, as Daahir points out, Yemen has been the only Arab country to take in large numbers of Somali refugees, who have poured out of the nation in droves since 1991, when the ouster of President Muhammad Siyad Barre led to turmoil and warlordism. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have tried to prevent Somalis from settling there, while Somalis who do make it to these Arab countries often face discrimination and hardship.
"Only one Arab country supports Somali refugees," says Daahir, sitting in the San Jose home of his friend, Ahmed Dirie, a Somali American who has lived in the United States since 2002. "All the other (Arab countries) kill Somalis, put them in jail, don't permit them to work, nothing. Or they just help the warlords."
Then there's the subject of oil. Like its Arab neighbors, Somalia has petrol reserves, but these deposits have gone untapped in the almost two decades since oil companies including Chevron signed deals with Somalia's government. In a sign of the relationship between these companies and American involvement in Somalia, Conoco reportedly let the U.S. Embassy use its Mogadishu compound in December of 1992, when Marines landed in Somalia to begin what was at first a humanitarian mission. In 1993, Conoco's then-representative in Somalia, Osman Hassan Ali, told Toronto's Globe and Mail newspaper that the "strategic value" of the country's oil reserves was a factor that propelled Washington to send troops there.
One reason the United States went back to Somalia this winter is to capture al Qaeda members who participated in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. After the United States left Somalia in 1994, it became a safe haven for terrorists.
Regardless of why the United States is back in Somalia, it's important for Washington to stay there and support the transitional government, and to pour millions of dollars into the country's reconstruction, say Daahir, Dirie and Shuaib Dualeh, a Somali American who was also interviewed in San Jose. If the United States doesn't invest in Somalia, they say, the country could easily slip back into an anarchic state. Like Daahir, Dirie and Shuaib welcomed U.S. military involvement in Somalia.
In 1992, Americans cared deeply about Somalia. When famine and fighting gripped the country in 1992, President George H.W. Bush ordered troops and assistance sent there in 1992. Bush himself visited Somalia that December, after the American media showed live coverage of U.S. troops landing on Somalia's beaches.
Like last time, though, the United States "could fall into a trap," Dirie worries. With its factional clans, history of warlordism, and changing fortunes, Somalia "is so complex," says Dirie, former head of the Bay Area Somali Community, a group that helps the estimated 5,000 Somalis who live in the Bay Area. "If anyone looks at it with one single lens, you will never get the whole picture." Ignoring Somalia because of this complexity would be a mistake, says Fall. Somalia is on a precipice from which it can either be stabilized or knocked over by a faction of extremists who are still in the country.
Last week, militant Somalis attacked the presidential palace in Mogadishu but were repelled. An Iraq-style insurgency could happen. To prevent that, the United Nations is encouraging talks with former members of the Union of Islamic Courts. A delicate peace process is under way.
"I'm sure it will be a long process," says Fall, "but we can't afford to lose momentum."
Momentum is something Somalia has lacked since the United States was last there. This time, things may turn out differently for Somalia and the United States. Without American involvement, says Dirie, there would be little hope for Somalia's future.
E-mail Jonathan Curiel at email@example.com.