Somalia, the Clintons’ poisoned legacy
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Nairobi with an agenda larger than the Agoa Forum.
The comments she proffered followed the script President Obama unveiled during his recent visit to Ghana.
The unavoidable subject of Somalia, however, presented a thornier dilemma.
One might even propose that Somalia is a Republican Trojan Horse that the Bush family faithfully bequeaths to the Clintons when they leave office.
Operation Restore Hope was the last overseas initiative launched by George H. Bush before handing over to Bill Clinton.
Three months later, the noble mission to deliver famine relief had morphed into the new president’s first major crisis.
The emotive televised images generated by the Black Hawk Down battle forced Clinton’s decision to withdraw the US military from Mogadishu.
The short-term political calculations behind this decision in 1993 were to exert long-term consequences. Clan militias resumed their turf battles.
The genocide in Rwanda erupted in the shadow cast by the failed intervention in Mogadishu’s civil war.
Osama bin Laden, reputed to have provided assistance to the forces fighting the Rangers, left Sudan.
Prior to his departure one of his allies, Hassan Al Turki, and his Ikhwan militia had taken control of the Benadir coast bordering Kenya’s Lamu District.
This area subsequently served as a safe haven and supply depot for Al Qaeda sleeper cells behind the attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in August 1998.
President Clinton, in the throes of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, responded by dispatching cruise missiles to targets in Afghanistan and Sudan.
The missiles hit abandoned Al Qaeda camps and the Al Shifaa pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum.
The choice of the latter, based on dubious Israeli intelligence, effectively torpedoed a burgeoning international coalition against terrorism that included the Arab League and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.
The Benadir link in the embassy bombings was ignored despite the presence of a training camp in Ras Kiamboni and reports of light-skinned foreigners training on the beach.
The light-skinned foreigners eventually dispersed, the Ikhwan’s Islamist mini-state soldiered on.
The Clinton administration support for the external formation of the Transitional National Government appeared to end at the border.
Once in Mogadishu, TNG president Hassan Abdul Salat was on his own.
America’s Somalia policy remained strictly laissez faire on the ground, even after George W. Bush succeeded him.
The US helped fund the Igad process leading to the Transitional Federal Government; after Kenya obliged the TFG to go home, direct funding for Abdullahi Yusuf and his parliament was limited to the allowances provided by the United Nations Development Programme.
All this worked well with humanitarian assistance from agencies chanelled to non governmental organisations well, until the rise of Aden Hashi, or “Airo,” the notorious leader of the Al Shabaab militia, when Fazul Mohammed slipped out of Siyu, boarded a speedboat, and re-entered Somalia via the Ras Kiamboni route.
Although leaders linked to Al Qaeda, who could be counted on the fingers of one hand, controlled only three of Mogadishu’s 16 Islamic courts, Bush ignored the advice of his State Department and channelled covert support for the warlords’ opportunistic Coalition Against Terrorism.
This gambit only empowered the IUC radicals associated with Airo’s Al Shabaab.
When they marched on the Baidoa-based TNG, the Ethiopians were called in.
The Ethiopian army scattered the IUC; US air strikes targeted the radicals fleeing to the south, but they survived to fight another day.
Predictably, the insurgency challenging the TNG and their Ethiopian guardians proved more problematic than the original IUC.
A new TFG government headed by IUC moderate Ahmed Sheikh Sharif fuelled hopes of a negotiated settlement.
But even formal recognition of Sharia law has failed to stem the Islamist surge.
The insurgents controlled a large swath of south-central Somalia by the time Barack Obama was sworn in.
Bolstered by volunteers from abroad and within their regions, they swarmed into Mogadishu.
They continue to lay siege to the small quarter controlled by the TNG, bombarding the president’s Villa Somalia residence and his African Union troops from dug-in positions.
This was the situation framing Mrs Clinton’s meeting with President Sharif at the US embassy in Nairobi last week.
He accused Eritrea’s President Issayas Afeworki, the insurgents’ most visible patron, of using Somalia as a proxy battleground for his quarrel with Ethiopia.
Following his lead, she promised Eritrea would face stern action, and more US weapons.
As the BBC’s Nairobi observer pointed out, the insurgents will use this promise to highlight the illegitimacy of the TNG, and portray Sharif as an American puppet.
New York Times correspondent, Jeffrey Gettleman, reported that the theme of her Africa mission is “how to use the United States’ enormous leverage on the continent… while still trying to come across as a friend.”
Unfortunately, Somalia requires leverage on the scale of the Soviet airlift that evicted Siad Barre’s Somali army from Ethiopia’s Ogaden Province in 1978, a massive infusion of troops and mechanised armour presaging the Powell doctrine.
While this would arguably have been a viable alternative to covert operations for a Bush president, Obama’s options are constrained by eight years of neoconservative blowback.
Among other things, this explains why Hamid Karzai is campaigning for re-election in Afghanistan by promising to send his American friends back home