The eastern African country of Somalia is currently suffering from a drought that has lasted for more than two years. A drought in an underdeveloped agrarian country that also lacks basic sanitation systems means further complications stemming from a lack of food production, subsequent malnourishment, and outbreaks of bacterial diseases such as cholera.
In fact, Somalia is currently reporting 200-300 cases of cholera a day. It’s a treatable condition, but aid agencies are consistently stifled in getting affected Somalis the care they need because the worst areas hit by the outbreak are in the southern part of the country––areas controlled by a group called Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is a radical Islamist militia that arose as a response to American covert operations in the country, as well as the US backed invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian forces in 2006. As with all policy decisions, there are unforeseen and unintended consequences. US foreign policy provided the catalyst for Al-Shabaab’s formation, who are in turn exacerbating this humanitarian crisis which has claimed over 500 lives so far this year.
In the early 2000s, Somalia was governed by a string of warlords that were supported by the US government, so long as they agreed to help target suspected terrorists that were taking refuge there. Growing tired of the warlords, a group of independent militias joined together to form the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and took control of the capital Mogadishu, and other parts of the country.
Because of the radical Islamist nature of the ICU, the Bush administration viewed them as an outgrowth of al-Qaida, and therefore could not be allowed to control such large swaths of the country. The US conducted a proxy war, sponsoring neighboring Ethiopia to invade Somalia and force the ICU out. What was left of the ICU became Al-Shabaab, a jihadist group that “emerged as the vanguard of the fight against foreign occupation,” according to investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, author of the 2013 book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.
Despite being pushed back from urban areas, Al-Shabaab controls a number of rural areas – many of the same areas that have been hit the hardest by the drought which is now threatening so many people. The group is reticent, or in some cases entirely unwilling, to allow aid workers into their c territory.
Even if rain does come soon to these regions, it will take time for plants and livestock to re-emerge, and the problem of poor sanitation will not have gone away. The drought is affecting close to 6 million people, and the World Health Organization is predicting the number of cholera cases to reach 50,000 by the end of the summer.
None of this suggests that life would be great if the US took a different approach to Somalia and the War on Terror. Somalia would still not be a developed nation with sustainable institutions of governance, and there have always been struggles with corruption and theft when it comes to aid. The Islamic Courts were ushering in an (admittedly short-lived) era of relative stability and peace, but they were also Islamist and repressive by any reasonable measure. But the fact of the matter is that a militant group whose existence is owed to blowback from American foreign policy is blocking aid to people in need.
This doesn’t shift the blame – responsibility lies with those that are prohibiting aid from reaching the affected populations. But the US should not deny its role in laying the foundation for the emergence of Al-Shabaab either.
As if the civil war in Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State in Libya are not enough, Somalia is another example of the unintended, negative consequences of an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy. The Islamic Courts Union may not have been any liberal-minded person’s ideal of a governing body, but it was so short-lived that we cannot know how it would have behaved long-term. Al-Shabaab, however, is imposing misery on innocent people.
Jerrod A. Laber is a non-profit program manager living in Northern Virginia. He is a Young Voices Advocate.