Fiasco in Somalia

Until a month ago, no one in the Bush administration showed the least bit of interest in the piracy off the coast of Somalia. Now that’s changed and there’s talk of sending in the Navy to patrol the waters off the Horn of Africa.

Why the sudden about-face?

It could have something to do with Ethiopia’s plans to withdrawal its troops from Mogadishu by the end of the year, thus ending the failed two year US-backed occupation of Somalia.

The United States has lost the ground war in Somalia, but its overall objectives haven’t changed. The US intends to stay in the region for years to come using its armada to prowl the waters around the Gulf of Aden. The resurgence of the Somali resistance is set-back, but it doesn’t change the basic game-plan. The pirates are actually a blessing in disguise. They provide a good excuse for the US to beef up its military presence and dig in for the long-haul. Every crisis is an opportunity.

There’s an interesting subtext to the pirate story which appeared in a recent copy of the Socialist Worker. According to author Simon Assaf:

“Many European, US and Asian shipping firms – notably Switzerland’s Achair Partners and Italy’s Progresso – signed dumping deals in the early 1990s with Somalia’s politicians and militia leaders. This meant they could use the coast as a toxic dumping ground. This practice became widespread as the country descended into civil war.

Nick Nuttall of the UN Environment Programme said,

“European companies found it was very cheap to get rid of the waste.”

When the Asian tsunami of Christmas 2005 washed ashore on the east coast of Africa, it uncovered a great scandal. Tons of radioactive waste and toxic chemicals drifted onto the beaches after the giant wave dislodged them from the sea bed off Somalia. Tens of thousands of Somalis fell ill after coming into contact with this cocktail. They complained to the United Nations (UN), which began an investigation.

“There are reports from villagers of a wide range of medical problems such as mouth bleeds, abdominal hemorrhages, unusual skin disorders and breathing difficulties,” the UN noted.

Some 300 people are believed to have died from the poisonous chemicals.

In 2006 Somali fishermen complained to the UN that foreign fishing fleets were using the breakdown of the state to plunder their fish stocks. These foreign fleets often recruited Somali militias to intimidate local fishermen. Despite repeated requests, the UN refused to act. Meanwhile the warships of global powers that patrol the strategically important Gulf of Aden did not sink or seize any vessels dumping toxic chemicals off the coast.

So angry Somalis, whose waters were being poisoned and whose livelihoods were threatened, took matters into their own hands. Fishermen began to arm themselves and attempted to act as unofficial coastguards.” (Socialist Worker)

The origins of piracy in Somalia is considerably different than the narrative in the media which perpetuates the stereotype of scary black men pillaging on the high seas. In fact, it is the pirates who are the victims of attacks on their territorial waters by corporate polluters. Because there is no functioning central government, there’s no one to defend the health and safety of the Somali people from foreign intruders who choose to use their country as a dumping ground.


In 2006, the Bush administration supported an alliance of Somali warlords known as the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that established a base of operations in the western city of Baidoa. With the help of the Ethiopian army, western mercenaries, US Navy warships, and AC-130 gunships; the TFG captured Mogadishu and forced the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) to retreat to the south. Since then the resistance has coalesced into a tenacious guerrilla army that has recaptured most of the country.

The Bush administration invoked the war on terror to justify its involvement in Somalia, but their claims are unconvincing. The ICU is not an Al Qaida affiliate or a terrorist organization. In fact, the ICU brought a level of peace and stability to Somalia that hadn’t been seen for nearly two decades.

Political analyst James Petras summed it up like this:

“The ICU was a relatively honest administration, which ended warlord corruption and extortion. Personal safety and property were protected, ending arbitrary seizures and kidnappings by warlords and their armed thugs. The ICU is a broad multi-tendency movement that includes moderates and radical Islamists, civilian politicians and armed fighters, liberals and populists, electoralists and authoritarians. Most important, the Courts succeeded in unifying the country and creating some semblance of nationhood, overcoming clan fragmentation.”

Somalia’s location and resources make it a prime target for US intervention. According to recent estimates, 30 per cent of America’s oil will come from Africa within the next ten years. Washington’s allies in the TFG promised to pass oil laws that would allow foreign oil companies to return to Somalia, but now all of that is uncertain. It is impossible to know what type of government will emerge from the present conflict. Many analysts expect Somalia to be a failed state for years to come.

The war between the occupying Ethiopian army and the various guerrilla factions has intensified over the last two years. Fighters from the ICU, Al-Shabaab and other Islamic groups have moved from the south to the vicinity of Mogadishu where the fighting has become more frequent. The security situation has steadily deteriorated leaving Ethiopia with no choice except to withdrawal its troops. By January 1, 2009, the occupation will be over.

In a recent Chicago Tribune article, “US Appears to be Losing in Somalia”, journalist Paul Salopek sums it up like this:

“(Somalia) is a covert war in which the CIA has recruited gangs of unsavory warlords to hunt down and kidnap Islamic militants…and secretly imprison them offshore, aboard U.S. warships. The British civil-rights group Reprieve contended that as many as 17 U.S. warships may have doubled as floating prisons since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks…

“Somalia is one of the great unrecognized U.S. policy failures since 9/11,” said Ken Menkhaus, a leading Somalia scholar at Davidson College in North Carolina. “By any rational metric, what we’ve ended up with there today is the opposite of what we wanted.” (Paul Salopek, “US Appears to be Losing in Somalia” Chicago Tribune)

Negotiations are currently underway between guerrilla leaders and the TFG over a power-sharing agreement, but expectations are low. Somalia’s fate is being decided with rifles not chit-chat. The moderate ICU will regain power but the country will be ungovernable for years to come. At best, Somalia is a decade away from restoring the fragile peace that was in place before Bush’s bloody intervention.

MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state and can be reached at






MIKE WHITNEY lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at