Cold War gave modern arms to old rivals OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 10, 1992|By Peter Honey and Nelson Schwartz | Peter Honey and Nelson Schwartz,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As thousands of U.S. troops pour int Somalia, they are confronting a nation in the grip of anarchy caused, in part, by the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for dominance in the Horn of Africa, political analysts say.

Superpower rivalry for strategic footholds near the oil-rich Persian Gulf and influence in Northeast Africa led to a massive infusion of arms -- mostly Soviet, but also American -- into Somalia during the 1970s and '80s. Those weapons, which now threaten American forces, have helped to tear the country apart.

"Somalia is one of the toxic waste dumps left over from the Cold War," said Bill Durch a senior associate with the Henry L. Stimson Center, a non-profit research group that specializes in national security issues.

TTC "It seemed expedient at the time to send weapons and tactical assistance into the bush, but nobody thought about what would be left over," he said. Now, he said, "we have to mount a cleanup."

The Soviets pumped more than $700 million worth of weapons and defensive military equipment into Somalia during the 1970s, according to a recent book by Paul B. Henze, a Rand Corporation analyst and former security adviser to the Carter administration.

Then Moscow effectively jilted Somalia in favor of neighboring Ethiopia, and Washington began its courtship with President Mohamed Siad Barre on the rebound.

In the 1980s, the United States took over as one of the chief suppliers of arms to Somalia, delivering almost $150 million in military aid. The aid ranged from sophisticated radar technology to the M-16 rifles and grenades still circulating today.

$4 billion in arms

Pentagon documents show that nearly 5,000 M-16 rifles were delivered to Somalia, along with nearly 4,000 grenades and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. Heavier armor was supplied as well, including mortars, howitzers and anti-tank missiles. Soviet weapons supplies to neighboring Ethiopia far outstripped U.S. sales. The U.S. and Soviet arms combined probably totaled close to $4 billion in the entire region during the 1970s and '80s, according to Mr. Henze.

While the nature and quantity of weapons reaching the Horn of Africa were dwarfed by the sophistication and scale of U.S. arms sales to such places as Israel and Egypt, they added a deadly modern dimension to ancient tribal conflicts constantly simmering in Somalia, analysts say.

"What the Cold War did was provide resources on a scale that the warring groups had never had before," said Abdullahi Aden, a Somali-born University of South Carolina postgraduate who is writing a doctoral thesis on the roots of the Somalian civil war. "It allowed individuals to become clients of one or other superpower and to rise up to prominence without much popular support."

Just as parts of Somalia are now ruled by rival warlords, Mr. Aden said, ousted President Siad Barre himself was "no more than a warlord," propped up first by the Soviet Union and then by the United States.

Mr. Siad Barre, who seized power in a coup in October 1969, was backed by the Soviet Union until 1977, when he invaded eastern Ethiopia to reclaim the disputed Ogaden region. Almost overnight, the Soviets abandoned Mr. Siad Barre and switched allegiance to his archenemy, Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam, helping Ethiopia ultimately defeat the Somali forces.

After being dumped by the Soviets, Mr. Siad Barre courted and won U.S. backing, which he retained until shortly before he was overthrown in January 1991.

Cold War heated up

U.S. military aid to Somalia began slowly at first, Pentagon figures show. Just $3 million worth of material was supplied in 1981. But the numbers rose sharply as the Cold War heated up and U.S. officials began to see Somalia as a pivotal point in the struggle to beat back Soviet influence.

By the mid-1980s, the United States was delivering roughly $20 million a year in military hardware. Support continued even as Somalian opposition to Mr. Siad Barre grew, with military aid peaking in the program's final year, 1989. By then, too, the Pentagon's objectives had changed.

That year, the Department of Defense asked Congress for "appropriate weapons, commensurate with Somalia's ability to use and maintain them effectively." The U.S. program, Pentagon officials claimed, "is a way to maintain access while promoting regional stability."

But regional stability is the last thing U.S. policies promoted or achieved, said Rep. Howard Wolpe, a Michigan Democrat who visited Somalia in 1981 just as U.S. arms sales were taking off.

"The regime in Somalia existed on the basis of brute force and the weapons we supplied," he said. "America is very much complicit in the tragedy that's unfolding now."

The overwhelming majority of guns on the streets of Mogadishu today are of East-bloc origin, smuggled in from Ethiopia and Libya or purchased in the shadowy international arms market.

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