Somalia, Al Shabaab, and How Geography Screwed A Country

The odds are good you’ve seen Black Hawk Down, where the story of the disaster that was the battle of Mogadishu is told rather well.  With such a baseline of knowledge, you’re aware that, at some point in the recent past, Somalia was a mess.  Things haven’t changed much.

Somalia is the king of Failed States – a title that involves having no real government, warlords, pirates, drugs, and pretty much every war crime, human rights violation, and general barbarism that you can imagine.  It’s The Road but not as cold and with less necessity for cannibalism.

Then there’s Al Shabaab – Arabic for “young men,” who, while made up mostly of young men, are also consummate assholes. Throw in Captain Phillips, the Kenya Westgate Mall butchery, and the occasional piracy stories that pop in the news and Somalia’s well-deserved reputation as World’s Worst Country is fully established.

But Somalia was not always such a basket case.

Somalia’s been geographically screwed since the Ice Age

Somalia is not all that far off from what Arabia would been if oil was never discovered.  With little water, low rainfall, open plains that allow invaders to come and go as they please, and no forests, jungles, or canyons to hide in, Somalia was a strategic liability for the only pre-modern indigenous state in the region, the empire of Ethiopia, who, with their highlands and better rainfall, set up a powerful state that tussled with Somalia nomads over the Ogaden desert.

That was more or less Somalia’s history up until the coming of the Italians.  Being unable to feed itself, Somalia never advanced beyond tribalism, with warlords fighting over the same turf forever.  Arabic and Islam made their way to the country by way of trade and pious missionaries, but Somalia, being Somalia, quickly morphed both into local forms, since without a central government no single version could be imposed.  (Somali Arabic is foreign enough that, here in Qatar, the pirates of Captain Phillips still required Arabic subtitles).

Dry and generally unpleasant.

Until the day the Italians got interested, but only because there wasn’t much left on the plate

In the Scramble for Africa, Italy got a late start.  Italian nationalists sought great power status, which included colonies, but the best parts of Africa were already grabbed by the French, British, and Belgians.  So Italy took what it could get, included the arid coastline of Somalia, where they slowly set up a colonial state by playing local warlords off one another.  (The other choice piece of real estate Italy grabbed was Libya, where no oil had yet been found and which was a liability even in Roman times).

Somalia was held as a matter of national pride and never paid for itself, but came in handy as a base for the 1936 invasion of far more valuable Ethiopia.  During World War II, the Allies ran a sideshow campaign to liberate Ethiopia and conquer Somalia from the Italians.  After the war, it was held as a UN trust under Italian administration until independence in 1960.

These experiences pretty much set the stage for the collapse that happened in 1991

Italy put a lot of effort turning this otherwise unremarkable piece of real estate into a productive colony.  Because of the harshness of the environment, productivity could only be maintained so long as an outside power was willing to dump money into the country to bribe clans, set up companies and businesses that stood a snowball’s chance in Hell of becoming competitive in the short term, and keep a government running.  Italy was willing to do this up until World War II because Somalia served as a beacon for nationalist pride in addition to being a base to strike at rivals throughout Africa, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean.

After the war, the UN kept the money flowing as part of its decolonization scheme to bring freedom too early to Africa.  The tribes were happy and the peace was kept.

Up north, in British Somaliland, the situation wasn’t much different, with the British even less interested in running a productive colony.  Somaliland, for Britain, was a base to keep the Suez Canal open between Britain and India.  With Aden in Yemen to the north, it ensured no power could easily blockade the Red Sea and prevent British trade.  Of course, once India gained independence, British interest in both colonies rapidly waned.

When the “Winds of change” rolled through Africa in late 1950s and early 60s, Somalia was one of the least prepared countries for it

Much of Somalia’s peace was due to outsiders running the show, bribing locals, and keeping them busy with various development projects.  Little was invested in a Somali civic society, and, like many African colonies, the early years of the country followed the How-To Guide to Colonization.  Democracy was promptly set up and promptly became a mess.  Clans jostled for power while elites in Mogadishu talked highly of all kinds of things that were irrelevant to a country that couldn’t figure out what to do with its nomads.

Unlike Saudi Arabia, who by 1960 was rolling in oil money, Somalia didn’t have the money to bribe people into compliance.  Democracy died in the 1969 coup, which established a military dictatorship that put many of the country’s demons into a Somali Pandora’s box.  Through brute force and hefty doses of nationalism, Siad Barre ruled the country with as iron of a fist as he could afford.

So he went trolling for someone, anyone, to help him keep that fist up to date

Like many post-colonial societies, Barre saw socialism and communism as the answer to the tribal nightmares that plagued his country.  So he promptly joined the Reds and went to work using their ideology to end tribal identity.  As part of the Cold War, the Soviets and Chinese saw Somalia as a nice little piece their networks of African clients, with Ethiopia being the prize of East Africa.  Like the Italians, it was a lovely place to pressure enemies all around the rim of East Africa.

But in his war on the clans, Siad Barre relied on a newly-minted Somali nationalism that sought to bring all Somalis under a single flag.  When he actually tried to do that in the Ogaden War, the Soviets and Cubans rode to Ethiopia’s rescue and wiped out Somalia’s army.  Siad Barre retreated, tail between his legs, to the lower rungs of power, and shortly thereafter switched sides to the Americans, who were happy to bribe him on the cheap as they sought to turn Somalia into a base to take down Red Ethiopia.

Greater Somalia. Hard to take, harder to hold, for anyone trying to build an empire from dry Somalia.

Such was the glue that held Somalia together

Nobody should have been under the illusion that Somalia had changed.  Nomadism was still popular and the only thing that kept society from returning to its roots was the army, bought and paid for by the United States.  That lasted until the end of the Cold War, when the aid promptly stopped.

It was impressive how fast Somalia fell apart.  Unable to bribe, with nationalism discredited by the failure of Ogaden War, Siad Barre had no leg to stand on.  Being a dictator without an army is a bad place to be; when the time came to start the shooting, he had nobody but his clan on his side.  Ironically, Barre had spent much of his life trying to undo the one thing that ended up saving his life.  Meanwhile, Somalia as a state collapsed and people returned to their pre-modern ways.

The UN mission of 1991-95 never had good odds since few were interested in fixing this raggedy edge of humanity

With no strategic resources and no great power competition jostling for control of the Suez, Somalia had dropped back to its place as worthless.  The UN got involved in the mistaken belief that, with the Cold War over, it was now the time to sort the rest of the world’s problems.  But the UN humanitarian mission that crescendoed in Black Hawk Down died as soon as outside powers realized building a state in Somalia would be hard, long, and very unlikely to pay them back.  The international community abandoned Somalia to its fate by 1995 and the warlords, once kept in check through bribery and outsider-supported institutions, returned.

Every movement since then has attempted to build a state out of the maelstrom

The Al Shabaab movement came out of what was called the Islamic Courts Union, a pan-Islamic movement that tried, much like Siad Barre, to use a foreign ideology to erase tribalism in the country and get the state moving again.  Unlike Barre, the ICU used local religion.  Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, they were harsh but predictable in their meting out of justice, and they gained support often because they stopped the shooting.  2006 was the height of their power; that was the year they held Mogadishu.

Alas, they came of age during a War on Terror, and their overtly Islamic overtones could not be tolerated by either the U.S. or nearby Ethiopia, who also worried about Islamic extremism.  In 2006, the Ethiopians invaded.  Somalia’s geography betrayed it yet again; the invasion was swift and resulted in an Ethiopian occupation of key regions.  Meanwhile, African states, led by rising African power Uganda, decided on another international mission to attempt to set up a government in the shattered country.  Without the West’s cash, they could move only slowly, but because of that slow movement have been more successful in putting pieces of the state back together.

Now, Al Shabaab have split from the ICU and gone insane.  Openly affiliated with al-Qaeda, they seek to bring about the same world destruction that they think will bring about a world caliphate – dominated by them, of course.  As state power slowly expands into their territory, they grow more desperate and radical.  They are outgunned, but remain capable of striking targets that one wouldn’t normally think of as a military target – think a shopping mall or some dudes cheering for their favorite football team.

Note the growing blue. Good on the AU.

So the pattern continues

The central government of Somalia is once more propped up by outsiders, but weaker and poorer outsiders than ever before.  Somalia itself doesn’t have the natural resources necessary to build a state and both the West and its many enemies see no advantage in dumping funds into this particular desert.  Somalia has become an African problem and has tested the African Union to its limits.  So far, they have held firm.

Such poor places need long spaces of peace to turn themselves into something useful.  Somalia has not yet had that.  If the AU can hold the line, in another decade or two, the situation will calm and the hard work of building an economy and effective government can begin.  But history has shown outsiders lose interest in Somalia easily.  Poor people don’t hold much attention for long.

Al Qaeda is Jason Voorhees

Virtually every movie of the Friday the 13th movie should have been the last.  And yet, despite the best efforts of both lucky teenagers and determined writers, Jason Voorhees just keeps coming back.  Why?  Because a hardcore group of people out there keep demanding to see him.

Al Qaeda is not so different.  Bin Laden is dead, its central leadership is decimated, the Pakistani Taliban increasingly uninterested in much more than trying to rule Waziristan, and yet, for some reason, America feels the need to shutter every embassy in the Middle East and North Africa. (Thanks, U.S. Embassy Abu Dhabi, for flooding my inbox).

Since October 2001, when American military operations started in Afghanistan, America has been winning the war against Al Qaeda.  And yet despite multiple successes, and al Qaeda’s many failures, the group, like Jason, just keeps coming back.

State of Al Qaeda in Iraq

“Hey guys.  Let’s kill everyone, starting with children.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Never a geopolitical threat, but a damned big political one

Al Qaeda never could achieve its geopolitical aims.  It’s economic program would see everyone from Pakistan to Morocco riding donkeys and dying at the age of 30 rather than forging a Muslim Grande Armee to invade North America.  Utterly irrational, al Qaeda couldn’t even control its Iraqi branch enough to prevent the full on Shi’a-Sunni civil war in 2006-07 that the Sunnis were decisively losing.  Without America’s surge to stem the bloodletting, and the timely allegiance switch of many a Sunni sheikh to America’s Awakening Councils, the Sunni community of Iraq may well have ended up changing address en masse to Syria.  This poor strategy was proof enough that al Qaeda was inherently self-destructive.

Alas, al Qaeda, those crazy bastards, embarrassed and enraged a superpower on 9/11.  Every American politician is aware that appearing to be anything less than murderous in regards to al Qaeda is to open themselves up to the accusation that they somehow desire another 9/11.  Regardless of party, politicians in the West must talk and act tough when it comes to al Qaeda – hence France’s invasion of Mali earlier this year.

Why won’t they just die?

America has hunted down al Qaeda everywhere it can.  Because al Qaeda’s totally irrational, they’ve got almost no friends.  Their once formidable bridges in the Persian Gulf were burned when they bombed Saudi Arabia; Sudan found incentive to expel them; even Pakistan’s government loathes them.

And yet…

In the emirates, I used to see these commercials in Arabic called “Say No to Terror” on TV.  I even taught lessons using the website.  The commercials are simple: they treat terrorism the same way the Reagan administration treated drugs.  Think of your mother, life, the poor people you’ll hurt, etc., says the campaign.  It was proof enough that Gulf governments considered the threat quite real.  Their bored and restless youths, instilled with a strict version of Sunni Islam clearly not being practiced by their leaders, are all too enticed to join something pure.  (One of my best educated students once shocked me by saying that Salafism was the “true” version of Islam, despite this not being the school’s official religion).

Elsewhere, being bored, badly educated, and in nasty surroundings will make anyone crazy

Al Qaeda’s main recruits come from poorly run places that are miserable to live in.  On occasion, hardcore Westerners show up and impress everyone with their passports, but these are not the foot soldiers that are taking territory in Yemen or killing oil workers in Algeria. Even these foot soldiers aren’t so numerous. Their bits of territory in Yemen seem to be more tribal than part of Al Qaeda’s grand world domination scheme.

Bomb away, Mr. President

Jason vs Jason X

Unkillable. (Photo credit: Boogeyman13)

After the Afghan and Iraq adventures, it’s clear that Al Qaeda’s brand of terrorism is best combated through a combination of pinpointed air strikes, commando raids, and good old-fashioned intelligence work.  Bush’s military overreaction was a result of Cheney and Rumsfeld’s imperial hubris and Bush’s own conviction that he was waging a grand war on evil.  Al Qaeda is a nasty bunch, but Satan’s legions they are not.  Obama has adjusted course and has wisely been happy to bomb al Qaeda’s leaders whenever they sit still.

But how long until they go away?

Al Qaeda may never actually totally die out.  Even the Nazis, who were given history’s most epic ass whooping, still have various branches here and there.  Like murder, al Qaeda’s brand of terrorism ends up being managed by states rather than eradicated.  Until civilization reaches deep into the world’s various hearts of darkness, al Qaeda won’t go anywhere.  The game will be that the world’s governments must get them before they get any of us.  Sadly, like the Jason franchise, we haven’t seen the last of them.

Gay Marriage, Geopolitics, and the Culture Wars

It may seem a stretch to connect the recent court ruling striking down America’s Federal Defense of Marriage Act and the do-or-die power struggles of nation-states. But it’s part of a wider global transition where traditional cultures are coming up against worldwide ones. Who can marry who, and what it represents, matters almost as much as the warship or missile count in the struggle for global dominance.

Cultures are, inherently, lifestyle systems that are supposed to ensure survivability

Your culture tells you what’s right and wrong; how to get a job or lose one; who to fuck and when; plus loads more. They all boil down to a belief that a certain system of living will ensure maximum survivability. The more traditional a culture is, the more local it is, and therefore the more its affected by the environment.

Imam Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen October 2008, ta...

Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen October 2008. Dude’s culture was perfectly suited to a world without Predator drones. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Take, for example, Gulf Arabs. Their speech, clothing, habits, foods, and even religion are deeply affected by their environment. Everything is geared towards maximum survivability in their particular desert. Take a bunch of them, dump them on an island in the Pacific, and watch their culture change beyond recognition.

Cultures are supposed to help sort problems ahead of you

Who should I marry? Why? What happens when I die? Is this guy a good president? Are my shoes too big or too small? What kind of metal should I shove into my body, and what kind of message should be tattooed across my lower back to increase the chances a hot, rich guy will marry me and give me money? Cultures are supposed to answer these questions before you’re born so you needn’t worry.

Alas, traditional environments are less and less important

I was born and raised in a desert, but I sure as fuck am not a Bedouin. Neither are most Gulf Arabs these days. Why? Because we really grew up in air conditioned houses, malls, and schools. We’ve got far more in common with kids in London, thousands of miles from where we grew up, than any 70 year old rancher in my home state who’s lived off the land most of his life.

Cultures, so long as they’re agreed upon, create stability

But as technology changes the environments we live in, despite the natural environments around us, traditional cultures suddenly become useless and sometimes even harmful. In a traditional, tribal society, it makes huge amounts of sense to go to tremendous lengths to protect women by sequestering them behind walls and veils and establishing ridiculous rites of marriage. After all, a tribal society has no law and order, no police or courts to sort out crimes, and few ways to prevent the odd rapist from having his way with the womenfolk except a guaranteed brutal reprisal.

But the Information Age has new demands

In a globalized society, woman don’t face the same primal threats. They’re less likely to die from pregnancy, can prevent it if they so choose, can work just as long and as hard as men, and can even, thanks to modern warfare, fight battles just as well as their male muscle-bound counterparts. So why the fuck should a woman wear a veil or stay at home or not have an abortion if she doesn’t want a kid just yet?

Because old habits die hard

N30-climbingbuilding-davidortmanTraditional cultures, alas, rarely die out – they go dormant, or underground, or get pushed aside for a while, until modern society hits a crisis and everyone wonders why and then someone in the crowd shouts it’s because We’ve Lost Our Way. Religious folk will say we’ve forgotten God; environmentalists will say we’ve moved too far from Mother Nature; anti-capitalists will decry the modern, dehumanizing corporate model and pine for the simple family farms of yesteryear; all will essentially say the past was better than the present and we ought to return to it.

This theme is deeply ingrained in all societies. At the end of the day, we were all given our cultural values by the age of 10. As society changes and those values are not longer necessary, we feel deeply uncomfortable that our primal teachings are being challenged or abandoned. After all, our values are supposed to help us survive. This is why nostalgia is such a powerful feeling; we want the security of a past where we know how the story ends.

In geopolitics, this creates tensions between traditionalists and modernists

Gay marriage in America has played out in the courts and voting ballots. That’s because America’s governing system actually works. Nobody’s been shot; nobody’s been bombed. There will be no civil war over this. The nation-state can absorb these changes, uncomfortably at times, without violence.

But in less advanced places, where geopolitics has conspired to make the state weak, it takes only a handful of people to take an otherwise peaceful debate and turn it violent. Al-Qaeda has always been a super minority among Muslims, but because it operates in places where the state is unbelievably weak, it’s managed to survive quite a long time. Al-Qaeda is nothing more than a traditional culture supremacist group, hoping they can solve all of modern society’s ills by creating a carbon copy of the early Islamic caliphate. They have become violent and remain violent because they are in places with weak police and armies.

In Egypt, the tensions between modernists and traditionalists are playing out in the street protests. Egyptians are learning, slowly, that their traditional culture cannot deliver the world they seem to want. They do not want to return to the 7th century, with its endemic warfare, high mortality rates, and backbreaking labor. They want a European lifestyle in air conditioned malls with nice houses, running water, and doctors that are more likely to save them than kill them. Unfortunately, much of their culture cannot provide that. Islamic Shari’a chokes capitalism, and the more traditional it is, the less modern economic development can occur (Saudis development being entirely imported rather than generated locally).

In Europe, the traditional values of state-sponsored welfare are under attack. The modern world just can’t accommodate 1950s-style Old Labor welfare; in the Information Age, many sick people can manage data entry a few hours a day. That Europeans can work now well past 65 doesn’t mesh well with their ingrained belief that they shouldn’t – that something inherently immoral is happening and their societies have gone off the rails now that they’re being asked to do so.

Globalization will eventually erode most traditional cultures into nubs

Ranch style home in North Salinas, California

The dream home for many of the world’s toiling masses. It will make them really fucking boring people. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the world develops, it becomes more alike. These days, you can eat like a lazy, slobby American, enjoying KFC or McDonald’s in nearly all capital cities. You can enjoy U.S.-style homes with U.S.-style entertainment. The richer a place becomes, the more it looks the same. This won’t sit well with all people. Some will and are fighting back.

The level of violence will depend on the power of individual states

A government with a strong police will mitigate most of this backlash. A weaker state, on the other hand, won’t. Violent groups will arise, lash out, and need to be defeated. Al-Qaeda has lasted as long as it has because it keeps hiding in places with shitty governments. Over time, expect all kinds of extremists to form, claiming to protect the essence of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, America, Britain, China, Mexico, Iceland, Las Vegas’s MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, etc. Their use of violence and their longevity will depend entirely on where they start. But they will all be part of the same phenomenon.

But barring a catastrophe, global culture will win

Unless the world melts down and we all die (or at least just most of us), globalization is going to continue to win skirmish after skirmish, battle after battle, and traditional cultures will be wiped out. Even whole languages will be worn away because their usefulness in the Information Age will be negligible. As the world’s environment changes thanks to technology, expect also its culture to change too. At the end, traditional cultures are on their way out. This Supreme Court ruling was just one more little step towards that.

  • On DOMA, SCOTUS Follows the Culture (