Daniel Abbott edited a book of essays on fifth-generation warfare in the 21st century. The Handbook of 5GW is now available for Kindle. I wrote the chapter on “Piracy, Human Security and 5GW in Somalia,” excerpted below.
Damned if You Do
Somali piracy wasn’t inevitable. It’s the result of a tragic chain of events playing out over 20 hard years for the East African nation. U.S. intervention represents several key links in that chain. It’s not a stretch to say that piracy is partially America’s fault. This hijacking of U.S. designs is characteristically 5G.
There was a time, the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when it was possible for Americans to believe that as sprawling and deep a crisis as Somalia’s could be easily fixed or, barring that, safely ignored. The deceptive allure of both these contradictory extremes — massive action and total inaction — was an open invitate to 5G hijacking. Confusion is one of the 5G fighter’s favorite conditions, for it chips away at the perception that the current world order actually works.
When civil war toppled dictator Siad Barre’s regime in 1991, clans began fighting for dominance in Somalia. The fighting disrupted food distribution and threatened millions with starvation. It was this dark prospect that prompted the first major U.S. military-humanitarian intervention of the post-Cold War era. In 1992, U.S. Marines stormed ashore near Mogadishu, launching a three-year peacekeeping operation, coordinated with the U.N., that grew to include 40,000 troops from 25 countries.
Operation Restore Hope helped end the starvation crisis, but this success was overshadowed by the deaths of 18 U.S. troops in a raid targeting a Mogadishu warlord accused of hijacking food shipments. The American deaths led to a rapid and ignominious end to the U.S. and U.N. intervention, despite the absence of a widely recognized Somali government and the high probability of another famine.
What followed was a decade during which Somalia was almost entirely on its own, ungoverned, hungry and ignored. “The great ship of international good will has sailed,” wrote Mark Bowden in his seminal book Blackhawk Down. Somalis had “effectively written themselves off the map.”
It was during this decade of isolation and neglect that Somalis got into the piracy business in a big way. As McKnight said, the first pirates were Somali fishermen demanding unofficial fees from foreign trawlers illegally operating in Somali waters. From there, piracy quickly evolved into Mafia-style organized crime. And it could only have happened in the absence of a widely accepted Somali government, an effective international peacekeeping force or, more broadly, substantial economic assistance to desperate fishermen.
Somalia’s isolation and neglect also proved a perfect breeding ground for militant Islamists. Promising peace, rallying desperate thousands around the banner of anti-Westernism, Somali Islamists emerged in the early 2000s and quickly organized across clan lines. The Islamists’ rapid spread began to pull together Somalia’s fractured landscape of warlord enclaves. While good for Somalis, the prospect of an Islamified Somalia terrified Washington, even more than pirates did, at first.
Damned if You Don’t
Somalia would make a dramatic reappearance on the “map” 10 years after the Marines stormed Mogadishu’s white beaches. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, organized from Afghanistan, awoke the United States to the dangers posed by militant Islamists — especially those Islamists based in ungoverned or under-governed spaces. Suddenly Washington thought it could no longer ignore Somalia. The anarchic country seemed to perfectly match Afghanistan’s profile.
So in October 2002, a force of 800 U.S. Marines landed in Djibouti, north of Somalia, aiming to “coerce others to get rid of their terrorist problem,” in the cryptic words of Army General Tommy Franks. The resulting “Joint Task Force Horn of Africa” grew to 2,000 people. Gunships and drones flying from the task force’s base launched several air raids on suspected Al-Qaeda enclaves inside Somalia.
But the air strikes didn’t stem the “Islamification” of Somalia or the spread of piracy. In fact, American attacks may very well have accelerated both processes, by fueling Somali suspicion of the Christian West and its allies, and thereby boosting popular support for the Islamists and for pirates, many of whom had branded themselves as do-it-yourself Somali “coast guards.”
In 2006, an alliance of Islamists calling itself the Islamic Courts Union defeated Somalia’s entrenched warlords and gained control of Mogadishu. They imposed a moderate form of Sharia law, suppressed banditry and opened up Somalia to foreign investment. The BBC called the Courts’ meteoric ascent a “popular uprising.” In Mogadishu, residents bristled under the harsher aspects of Sharia, such as the prohibition of cinemas, but the same resident welcomed the law and order the Courts enforced. Piracy waned during the Courts’ rule.
But the U.S. State Department had branded the Courts’ armed wing, Al Shabab, a terrorist organization owing to its purported Al-Qaeda ties, so Washington never accepted the Courts as Somalia’s legitimate government, even if most Somalis did. Washington, the U.N., the African Union and Ethiopia all backed the unpopular, clan-based “Transitional Federal Government,” formed in Kenya and headquartered in Baidoa, a small town outside Mogadishu.
In 2006, at the peak of the Courts’ rise, Ethiopia — a landlocked Christian nation and a longtime rival of Somalia with its exquisite deepwater ports — reflexively launched a 3GW, Blitzkrieg-style invasion of Somalia, with Washington providing key support in the form of aircraft and Special Forces operating out of Djibouti. In a matter of weeks, the Courts had been routed. Al Shabab melted into the countryside and into Mogadishu’s teeming slums.
Soon, Al Shabab would re-emerge to challenge the roughly 50,000 occupying Ethiopian troops, turning the Somalia conflict into an Iraq-style insurgency. What followed was two years of urban bloodshed, punctuated by periodic U.S. air strikes on suspected terrorists in the countryside. By 2007, Mogadishu residents seethed at the mere mention of America. “You Americans. You’ll destroy an entire city to get three people,” scolded one professor in Mogadishu. Not coincidentally, it was the period of Ethiopian occupation in 2007 and 2008 that saw piracy escalate, from a regional nuisance to a global economic threat.
With tens of thousands dead on all sides, by 2009 the Ethiopians had had enough. And with Somalia now threatening world trade, the U.S. State Department had had enough, too. Where before, Washington had preferred anarchy to Islamic government for Somalia, now the State Department just wanted order — any order. “If you want help ensure regional stability and prevent the criminality that has taken place around Somalia for the last decade and a half, you must have a state capable of securing its borders,” a State Department source said. “That’s our over-riding perspective.”
Even if that meant the Islamists return? Yes, the source said. “It’s not up to us to decide who has the most legitimacy among the Somali people.”
For Islamists, State’s change of heart represented a subtle victory. The chaos unleashed first by the Somali civil war in 1991, and anew with the 2006 destruction of the Islamic Courts, had resulted in seemingly intractable economic warfare that seemed to have convinced Washington that maybe Islamists weren’t so bad, after all. That’s model 5GW. The Islamists had only to let the pirates do what pirates do best. The pirates, for their part, probably weren’t even aware that they were helping the Islamists wage a winning war.
The Ethiopians’ withdrawal in January sparked a dramatic sequence of events. The TFG fled to Djibouti, where the unpopular body promptly signed a peace deal with a coalition of moderate Islamic groups then elected the former head of the Islamic Courts as the country’s new president. President Shariff Sheikh Ahmed installed his new government in Mogadishu, restored Sharia and began offering truces to holdout Islamists. Only Al Shabab resisted the olive branch, and the fighting finally subsided. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” one State Department official said. “It’s fragile,” he said of Somalia’s new, more inclusive government, “but all new beginnings are.”
As far as piracy is concerned, the return of Sharia law offers hope of a long-term solution. Sea banditry is incompatible with Islamists’ obsession with lawfulness. If peace holds and Sheikh Ahmed’s government lasts, pirates might finally face real justice in their own enclaves. But the price, for Washington, is the firm establishment of a government led by a man formerly associated with a “terror group.”
Somalia’s recent history is marked by cycles of U.S. engagement and withdrawal. A major peacekeeping deployment collapsed, followed by nearly a decade of total neglect, at the end of which events drew America back to Somalia, but in fits and starts marked more by strategic failure than by success. U.S. involvement since 2002 failed to stop the Islamification of Somalia, and had the sad effect of alienating everyday Somalis by prolonging the Courts’ bloody, and inevitable, ascent.
The confusion is, in part, endemic to Africa. But it’s also the result of Washington having two incompatible goals. In Somalia, the United States wants the kind of law and order that trumps piracy. But these days that kind of order is best enforced by Islamic groups with broad popular support — and preventing the rise of such groups is Washington’s other goal. The U.S. can have a stable Somalia, or it can have a Somalia without formal Islamic leadership, but it can’t have both. Trying to have both means having neither. Insurgency, piracy and rising anti-American extremism are the immediate results. The long-term risk is further damage to U.S. interests inflicted by 5G subtle actors hijacking Somalia’s chaos for their own purposes.
In retrospect, one reason for Washington’s failures should be clear. America’s Somalia strategy has been dominated by the military doing traditionally military things. This in a country, on a continent, in an era, where military force is often worse than ineffective. In Africa, in an age of 5GW, the only meaningful secruity is individuals’ security, and that’s a condition that’s rarely improved by the imprecise application of massive firepower.
To prevent 5GW, the U.S. must prevent subtle actors from “socializing their problem,” to borrow Barnett’s phrase. That means preventing the kinds of widespread desperation that makes individuals and populations vulnerable to exploitation by subtle actors. The unconscious collective actions of individuals seeking security — the mass movement of refugees, for instance, or spiraling tensions over food, water and firewood — are potentially more destructive, globally and in the long term, than most imaginable conventional military conflicts between African states. Desperation is the 5G actor’s favorite state, for others.
It’s for those reasons that some military planners have begun to re-conceptualize U.S. national security as a facet of world security, which is itself anchored in human security. “What we’re going to see in the future is that security is not going to be based as much on state-centric models,” said Major Shannon Beebe, the U.S. Army’s top intelligence officer for Africa. “[Security] is not going to be based as much on state-versus-state type of engagement, but the insecurities and the conditions of human beings that create these insecurities across state borders.”
In other words, “security” no longer means detente between superpowers. In the age of instantaneous communications and empowered individuals, security is a person’s freedom from fear, disease and hunger. People who feel secure are peaceful, or so the thinking goes. By that line of reasoning, insecure people pose a threat to secure people, for the insecure might seek to destroy, with gestures big and small, the global systems that they believe have failed them. 5G actors wait in the wings to pick up the pieces, and rebuild the world according to their designs.
Somali piracy, for one, “is a typical case in which failed states and a poor representation of marginalized sectors of the population can become a threat to the security of others around the world,” Gonzalo Peña, a Utah-based consultant with a humanitarian background. The 5G effect of that threat was to help change U.S. policy to embrace the very people Washington had once branded an enemy.
In some circles, that’s called “defeat.”