Externalizing the costs of war in Somalia
Oct 16, 2011

Externalizing the costs of war in Somalia

Perhaps the epitome of a war that externalizes costs out of sight of the average voter is one where the voter is unaware a war is even going on. Such is the case in Somalia, where most Americans might list Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya as wars the US is involved in but not Somalia. Despite this, a war it very much remains, and a war which has consisted of extensive unilateral engagement by the US that has irrevocably influenced that country for decades. So many of the tactics of externalizing costs—drones, covert actions, backing warlords, backing proxy regional forces, etc.—are all present in Somalia.

While there are many tactics that contribute to externalizing the cost of war, perhaps the central one is to have other people do the actual fighting. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that fastest way to lose public support is to have soldiers from your own country dying, and any way that this can be avoided is aggressively sought after. This is not, of course, in and of itself ignoble—clearly we should work to minimize our own country's deaths—however, simply transferring it to equally many or quite possibly more deaths by others could hardly be supported.

Certainly the most poignant recollection of Somalia that most people have is of the 1993 so called Black Hawk Down incident which led to the US withdrawing its significant contingent of ground troups in the country (an event, incidentally, that Osama bin Laden hoped would be repeated as a result of 9/11). However, American involvement remained strong. After 9/11, with the enormous worry about Al Qaeda (which had extremely minimal involvement in Somalia, perhaps as little as a dozen members) from the Bush administration, the major policy in Somalia was to back various warlords who controlled certain areas and have them do the various bidding of the US such as supply info and capture and kill militants as prescribed by the CIA. These warlords were not even pretending to do something like aim to form a central government—much less a democratic one.

The situation is analogous to the US funding of warlords during the eighties in Afghanistan to achieve a specific goal of the time (fighting the Soviets in that case) without much consideration for what the result of giving all these warlords more power would be in the future. As we now know, so much of the domestic and international problems in Afghanistan resulted from the problem of warlords including Osama bin Laden who was a member of the US backed mujahideen. However, at a given moment of time it is far cheaper and easier to simply fund and back some existing warlords than it is to do the fighting oneself and so this externalizes the costs even though those costs do get paid by the resulting suffering that comes from backing such warlord groups.

In Somalia, the warlords were hated and the result was that local Islamic courts popped up with wide support from the people, clan leaders, and business men, to provide local jurisprudence outside of the warlord networks. These coalesced into the ICU, or Islamic Court Union, which provided perhaps the best hope for a largely moderate, if Islamic, national governance structure upon which a full fledged state could be developed. There was hope. Unfortunately, such largely grassroots Islamic movements were not to be tolerated and the US orchestrated and financed a massive intervention, occupation and "nation building" effort to be conducted entirely by proxy forces.

African Union forces from Ethiopia, Uganda and others (both of these heavily US backed) did all of the ground work with various aerial and intelligence support by the CIA and US SOF which maintained a presence on the ground. They displaced the ICU and established the government, such as it is, in the capital Mogadishu without an ability to extend even to the limits of that city. In so doing, most of the moderate and nonviolent parts of the ICU were eliminated but what remained was the previously largely small and fringe al-Shabab movement that forms the core resistance movement that gets so much news today as the key nefarious entity to condemn in Somalia.

Like the use of backing warlords before it, the extensive use of proxy forces from US allied regional states represents a second phase of externalizing influence in Somalia. While the connections between the proxy forces and the US ran very deep, and while there were certainly a strong covert presence of US boots on the ground, there was no overt US boots on the ground to be explained or questioned in the media. It is enormously cheaper in (US) lives, in dollars, and in political capital with the public, to externalize the fighting in this way.

Again we see a parallel with Afghanistan where the regime change of Taliban control over much of Afghanistan was conducted by appealing to the Northern Alliance who did all the ground fighting to eliminate the Taliban from control of the major cities and facilities backed with US air support, weaponry, financing and intelligence.During the occupation and subsequent fighting and nation building in Afghanistan, the US then secured enormously multilateral support from many other countries to each contribute a bit to the war effort thereby both reducing the costs and increasing the perception of legitimacy for the US.

We thus see the two pronged tactic of either using local forces on the ground (the warlords in Somalia, the rebels in Libya, the 80's era warlords or the 2000's Northern Alliance warlords in Afghanistan) or, alternatively, using multilateral support from other countries such as NATO countries in Afghanistan and Libya or neighboring African Union countries in Somalia. The details change but the big picture remains the same.

Today the war in Somalia remains ongoing but is suppressed and hidden from view. There is now reporting of CIA blacksites in Somalia. Somalia has received its first trial drone strike with expanding encroachment of new and secret bases for the purpose in Djibouti, Ethiopia and the Seychelles. Drones are perhaps the epitome of this process of externalization as they remove the need for any risk to a US solider's life, have no international due process and are very difficult for the media (or the US itself) to measure the effects of them. Extensive funding and backing of the African Union troops and the transitional government in Mogadishu that they support all channels through the US.

While the costs of wars can be kept hidden and out of sight of the public, they remain very real costs nonetheless. Perhaps even worse, the very act of all this externalization of costs has real and significant consequences. Somalia provides a perfect case study for how any direct and apparent cost to the US public for its interventions in Somalia are externalized away to the point that most are simply unaware such influence even exists.

The problem of such externalization is two fold. On the one hand, often tactics are used because they have low political cost (backing warlords over putting US troops on the ground, say) but are horrible tactics from a utilitarian perspective. As we have seen, the rise of the previous inconsequential al-Shabab resistance can be traced back to a series of such policies. The aim of trying to keep the apparent costs to the western public low can result in a worse, perhaps significantly worse, situtation to the actual people living in the region. The difficulties of such blowback seems to be systematically under-appreciated.

On the other hand, if a course of action is misguided, being taken for the wrong motivations, or even simply morally wrong, then having the costs of war externalized from the voting public removes the most important and powerful disincentive for war. A public that is only vaguely aware of the existence of a war, let alone its true costs, is not a public capable of voicing a strong criticism of the war. The true and full costs of war should be transparent and readily available for the public and media to understand and analyze. Only then can an informed public consensus on the merits of war be determined.

For an excellent read on the recent history in Somalia as sketched above, I would recommend this article by Jeremy Scahill, one of the best non-embedded American journalists covering middle eastern geopolitics.

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