Somalis: 'A People without a Country'

November 14, 1993|By SUNNI M. KHALID

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Just before he was overthrown almost three years ago, Somalian President Mohamed Siad Barre vowed in one of his final national addresses to "leave a people without a country."

By the time an armored convoy containing Mr. Siad Barre left the shell-pocked Presidential Palace in Mogadishu, the dictator had

made good on his word. Much of the fabric of the Somalian society that had been formed over 1,400 years had been devastated in 22 years.

Thirty-one years after independence -- when British and Italian Somaliland had merged to form a country where 99 percent of the inhabitants were of the same distinct ethnic stock, spoke the same language and practiced the same religion -- Somalia was in ruins.

Gone with President Siad Barre was the veneer of ethnic harmony. The Somalis had long portrayed themselves to the world as one people. But in reality, they had always looked upon themselves as members of rival clans or large families, perpetually locked in an often-bitter, centuries-old competition for scarce resources in a forbidding environment. The clan system is perhaps Somalia's greatest source of strength -- and weakness.

In the anarchy which ensued after Mr. Siad Barre's ouster, the loosely organized resistance fragmented along regional and clan lines. These rivalries were acted out in the kind of bloodletting usually associated with ethnically disparate countries such as Bosnia, Burundi or Sudan. Whole neighborhoods and villages were looted and pillaged as clans settled old scores. This clan rivalry interposed itself over political competition among emerging warlords and led to the famine that cost an estimated 300,000 lives.

U.S.-led forces entered this maelstrom when Operation Restore Hope began in December. The goal of the intervention was noble: to secure delivery of relief supplies in famine-stricken areas. But the inability of Washington policy-makers to understand the nuances of clan politics doomed the United Nations mission as it transformed itself this spring from humanitarian to political objectives.

"One of our biggest mistakes was that no one recognized the complexity of the situation at the start," a senior U.S. diplomat said recently. "The number of nuances involved in clan politics in Somalia are greater than in most Third World countries, and much more difficult to understand than [ethnic] politics elsewhere in Africa."

Last month, after a unit of elite U.S. Army Rangers were mauled during an ill-fated "snatch" mission in south Mogadishu against supporters of one of the warlords, Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid, the Clinton administration "blinked." Afraid of more U.S. casualties, President Clinton decided to withdraw troops by March 31.

The lack of U.S. political resolve in the aftermath of the Mogadishu disaster has effectively ended the armed intervention Somalia. One senior administration official told me recently that there will be a "race for the airport" among multinational forces trying to leave Somalia. Not only are U.S. troops leaving, but those from Belgium, France, Germany and Italy say they are pulling out, too.

Diplomatic contacts now by the U.S. special envoy in Mogadishu, Robert Oakley, can be seen as negotiating the terms for withdrawal, nothing more. A so-called "African solution" is hopeless, nothing more than a fig leaf to cover the U.S. decision to cut and run.

Whenever they leave, foreign troops will be leaving behind a security situation that could well be worse than what existed at the time of their arrival. The U.N. mission has virtually ended. Foreign troops sat on the sidelines during recent fighting in Mogadishu between General Aidid and a rival, Ali Mahdi Mohamed. Those stationed in south Mogadishu have been hunkered down in their compounds for nearly five months and have surrendered control of the streets to various militias and highwaymen, who are again manning checkpoints and exacting tolls.

After withdrawal, many administration officials expect intense urban warfare in Mogadishu -- already foreshadowed by the return of the so-called technicals to the capital. Then, the anarchy could return to the countryside. Many fear that within six to nine months, climatic conditions and political instability could produce a famine more severe than any the country has known.

International involvement in Somalia, therefore, should not end with the armed intervention. The United States and others can and should remain engaged through non-military means to safeguard against calamity and assist the reconstruction of Somalia.

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