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Leaving Somalia in the Lurch

LEAVING Somalia before it is indigenously governed, or governable, is a serious mistake. The three major warlords in southern Somalia covet national hegemony and will stop at nothing less. Only a well-armed, determined United Nations presence will deter the resumption of bloodshed, food shortages, and chaos.

The last of United States troops, once numbering 28,000 and now 4,000, are scheduled to depart from Somalia no later than the end of March. About 2,000 may be stationed on ships offshore. The Italians have removed their troops; so have the French and the Turks. Soon only lightly armed Pakistanis, Indians, and Malaysians will stand between innocent Somalis and mayhem.

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That Western nations should want to pull their soldiers out of Somalia is understandable. The Somali warlord factions, especially in Mogadishu, have steadily refused to be pacified or disarmed. Ever since the US scaled back its forces almost a year ago and turned the humanitarian mission into a UN peacekeeping operation, the forces of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed, Mohamed Ali Mahdi, and Col. Omar Jess have bided their time, hidden their arms, and largely succeeded in defying outsiders. They have continued to extort and, on occasion, to loot.

The loss of US and Italian lives, however limited, proved politically poisonous at home. No Western nation, least of all the US, can sustain a distant military operation politically when the local populace is hostile and seemingly so undeserving. Nor can the UN impose its will or introduce more than a veneer of order when Security Council members abandon the operation.

Yet as understandable as a scaling back of the UN effort in Somalia may be, it is excessively short-sighted. An undermanned and underarmed UN force will be unable to prevent renewed factional fighting across Mogadishu's green line. Already, aid workers in Mogadishu and in once-peaceful outlying centers have been harassed and attacked. Humanitarian workers will increasingly be targeted for assault. Their aid activities will be disrupted and a large rural population, until recently well-off compared to conditions a year ago, again will be put at risk.

In October, Defense Secretary Les Aspin pledged an American determination ``to prevent the return of anarchy and famine.'' President Clinton said that US troops would remain in Somalia until their mission was complete. But after being bashed in Congress for permitting the loss of American lives, Mr. Clinton began to turn his back on the Somalis.

Conditions are ripe once again for widespread warlord predation. Without American or other big-power support, the UN force in Somalia will be too small and weak to forestall anarchy. The tragedy is that until very recently the US-UN mission had succeeded in most of the country outside Mogadishu. Violence and banditry in the countryside had been curtailed, the number of displaced Somalis reduced to 1.3 million from triple that amount, crops harvested, and the scourge of famine ended.

Children are less unhealthy than they were a year ago and 10 to 20 percent, not 60 to 70 percent, are malnourished. Death rates from disease have fallen dramatically.

A few months ago the UN had a plausible plan to create 93 district councils, followed by 18 regional ones, and then, by 1995, a transitional national council. But UN plans for local and regional government, and peace and prosperity in the countryside, are anathema to the clan-based warlords in the south. Each thinks of himself as an undisputed national ruler, with the accompanying spoils. The American pullout, and the weakness of the remaining UN force, plays precisely into the hands of those who thus prey on the mass of Somalis.

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It soon will be too late for Clinton to retain some measure of US power in Somalia. If we do sail away, our ultimate moral responsibility for the fate of Somalia will, nevertheless, endure. And we may well be compelled to return. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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