Today, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that over the weekend Klaus Töpfer (now vice-president of UNICEF) called for an international humanitarian intervention in Somalia to help distribute aid and in doing so use force against al-Shabaab if necessary. Is it just me or is anyone else having a deja-vu moment right now? Well, for the moment, its just me. Not that many people have actually studied Somalia. But in recent years I've written more than a dozen pieces on Somalia [you'll get one of my latest here] and hence feel compelled to make a couple of remarks.
Its not that there isn't an intervention in Somalia. There is. Its called the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and they have recently gained control of roughly 70 percent of the city, which is quite remarkable. It is that area that is now being flooded by refugees. About 1.5 million people have come to AMISOM-controlled areas in recent weeks and they desperately need help. But, in order to get help to these people, no additional intervention is necessary. And needless to say having the recently gained quarters of the town flooded with civilians is not exactly what one would hope for in military terms.
Moreover, the United Nations estimates that about 12 million people in total need some sort of food relief. But that's in no way certain, because the Somali government hasn't exactly had the time or liberty for a census. So most of the affected live in areas in Ethiopia and Kenya's Northern Frontier District. Areas that are accessible right now. The people in demand of relief living in Somalia could easily vary between some three and six million.
But what is even more striking, however, is in how close this debates comes to the one we had before entering Operation Restore Hope in 1991. Back in the days, George H. W. Bush had already lost the elections but was still in the White House and it would be months before Bill Clinton would be inaugurated. In light of the famine, Bush senior decided that nobody should suffer from hunger on Christmas in 1991. Armed gangs and militias had already begun to regard food as an equivalent to money and took a huge part of it away from the famine relief programmes. In fact, the food relief was already fuelling the war in Somalia and George H. W. Bush thought that shortly after the end of the Cold War such disasters could and should be stopped by the world's sole remaining superpower. Operation Restore Hope was a huge success initially (lesson here, do not believe media stereotypes). The operation saved the lives of some 300.000 Somalis. But: In the world we live in, we don't just leave after having dealt with the worst part of the suffering. We stay to create conditions that make it less likely that we have to deal with the situation again. So when the United States intervened as the spearhead of UNITAF it was only the first step to a major intervention by the United Nations (UNOSOM I and later on UNOSOM II) and from the beginning there were problems: The United Nations under the leadership of Boutros Boutros Ghali wanted to rebuild the war torn nation, whereas the Bush senior wanted out as quickly as possible (after all, it was part of a legacy-shopping effort and he had no intention to leave Clinton with a costly quagmire). While that disagreement was brewing, forces on the ground had their very own problems. UNOSOM missions were planned and executed long before the United Nations came up with robust mandates. And the mission never had the troop numbers necessary to deal with the violence. Worst of all, the had no strategy.
And why is all of that important? Because the very same problems already haunt AMSOM. Like the mission in the early 1990s and the current allied effort in Afghanistan, there is no clear strategy guiding military efforts. And worst of all, there are territorial disputes that need to be dealt with—The international community still has no idea on how to deal with Somaliland's bit for independence [though I personally suggested a long time ago that it needs to be recognised as a state]. So before anyone should advocate intervening in Somalia, let them have a strategy first.