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The impact of foreign military intervention on the Somali civil war

Muuse Yuusuf
August 3, 2021

Foreign military intervention

The ongoing civil war in Somalia with its different stages from 1978  has shocked both analysts and ordinary people because no one, except a few scholars, has ever imagined a homogenous society like Somalia could ever disintegrate and descend into anarchy and civil strife.  Piracy, mass people displacement, famine, terrorism, extremism, and threat of secession are the lenses through which the world sees and describes Somalia.

Scholars and analysts have all been struggling to explain the genesis of the conflict. Anthropologists and historians tend to explain the conflict through Somalis’ ancient clan system, which they believe divides them into rival clans unable to govern themselves under a modern state structure. To this group, the collapse of the post-colonial state into clan-based fiefdoms is confirmation of their long-held view that clan is the most determinant factor in Somali societies’ political and socio-economic life.

There are also modernist and transformationist scholars who argue that despite clan being a salient factor, it is simplistic to use clan as the main explanatory method of the conflict and that there are other socio-economic and political factors, which need to be considered, for example competition of ruling classes and elites over resources of the post-colonial state.

There is a third group, mainly Western media, which, since the outbreak of the civil war in 1991, has been arguing that violence and anarchy constitute foundation of Somali culture and character, and that political intolerance is the norm, which leads to perpetual violence.

However, although above discourses, have valid points, the impact of some serious foreign military interventions from 1977 to present day on the initiation and perpetuation of the civil war has not been fully analysed and recognised as a separate paradigm, which explains the conflict.  For example, to show how the defeat of the Somali National Army in the 1977 Ogaden war between the Republic of Somalia and Ethiopia at the hands of a foreign military superpower,  former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was a turning point, which unleashed dynamics, forces and sequence of events that ultimately led to the gradual disintegration of the country.

Although scholars have recognised the Ogaden debacle as a watershed in Somali history, and have highlighted its immediate impact, there is not much literature written on the long-term impact of the defeat on the Republic from 1977 to present day in a systematic and coherent way. For example, to show how the tragedy caused political instability and entrenched dictatorship, which led to the civil war from 1978 throughout 1980s, 1990s to present day.

While the USSR military intervention saved Ethiopia from disintegration at that historical juncture it triggered the collapse of the Somali state and the subsequent civil war. This is matter of fact that has not been fully appreciated by scholars when they analyse the genesis of the civil war. Put simply, the evil monster jumped off the wagon of the Ogaden defeat, which  was brought about by the USSR-led WARSAW military coalition. And most of the later events were/are consequences of the humiliation and loss of national pride that the Republic has suffered as a result of the defeat.

Foreign military intervention in Somalia did not end with the end of the Cold War era. Indeed, the United Nations’ military intervention in early 1990s was the second biggest foreign military intervention, which contributed to the disintegration of Somalia. Although it saved hundreds of thousands of people from starvation, the UN mission, known as the United Nation Operation of Somalia (UNOSOM), failed to stabilise the country. Political blunders and leadership failures by both Somali and UNOSOM leaders reduced the ambitious nation-building mission to no more than a city-based manhunt project in which Admiral Jonathan Howe, UN’s representative in Somalia, became Sheriff of Mogadishu, hunting down a renegade warlord, General Mohamed Farah Aideed in what seemed like a classic wild-west movie. The outcome of the UNOSOM debacle was further destabilisation of the country as warlords, factional leaders and local clans used it to enhance their power ambition.

The USA’s global war-on-terror after 9/11 is the third huge political and military event that has contributed to further fragmentation of Somalia not only into clan fiefdoms but also along religious sects. Unfortunately, Somalia became an experimental ground for the execution of the war-on-terror just like it was  a battlefield for the USA vs. USSR rivalry in the Horn during the Cold War.

The Ethiopian invasion of southern Somalia in 2006, which radicalised Somalis and resulted in the rise of radical Islamists, such as Al-Shabaab, had all the hallmarks and similarities of the circumstances leading up to the invasion of Iraq by the US-led coalition in 2003. Indeed, the Bush administration was colluded in the invasion, encouraged and supported Ethiopia, which became its war proxy.

Right now, to conduct its global war-on-terror, the US is still deeply involved in Somalia. While contemplating to withdraw its military force from Afghanistan and Iraq-two other war-on-terror related conflicts-the US has been launching military operations in particular airstrikes against Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group.

Presence of over 20,000 strong military force from the African Union in Somalia is clear evidence of the long term impact of America’s war-on-terror on the country. The African mission, known as AMISOM was authorised by the UN Security Council as part and parcel of the war-on-terror, but is seen by many Somali stakeholders as an occupying force hence the rise of Al-Shabaab insurgency etc. AMISOM could be described as a war proxy for the US in the Horn as Western countries pay cost of the mission.  

Furthermore, the war-on-terror has changed the Somali tragedy to a religious conflict. Indeed, while the 1991-2000 conflict was mainly about warlordism, factionalism and clans fighting over control of resources and territories, the post-2001 conflict took a religious dimension, which has bitterly divided Somalis along ideological lines. As well as clan divisions, Somalis are now deeply divided along religious sectarian lines as never before. The outcome of the war-on-terror is it has prolonged the Somali civil war.

At regional level, Somalia has to live with hostile neighbours fearful of Somali nationalism for historical reasons. Ethiopia and Kenya have all shown their determination to use force as and when they want. They invaded Somalia in 2006 and 2011 in pursuit of their national interest bundled under the war-on-terror narrative in a realist world in which nation-states would always pursue their national interest.

The point about this article is to recognise the impact of some huge foreign  military interventions in Somalia from the 20th century Cold War to the present day war-on-terror as a new separate paradigm, which explains the cause of the Somali civil war besides other paradigms, such as the dominant clan narrative.

And in a way it is also an attempt to partially exonerate Somalis from the “blame the clan” game that the clan-base discourse places on their shoulders and their clan system. This is to say that it is not only local clans, but other huge global political and military forces have contributed to the ongoing civil war.

Muuse Yuusuf is the author of the book “The Genesis of the Somali Civil War: The Impact of Foreign Military Intervention on the Conflict”, which  was published by Bloomsbury Publishing Group in June 2021, https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/genesis-of-the-civil-war-in-somalia-9780755627097. He can be contacted by [email protected].


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