In early June of 2006, Islamic militants stormed Somalia’s capital city of Mogadishu–site of the 1993 killings of 18 American marines, captured in the movie Black Hawk Down–and wrested control from several allied warlord militias. The U.S. government, meanwhile, was found to be funneling military support to the warlords in a bid to prevent the spread of what it perceived to be radical Islam and terrorism. Understanding the puzzle of Somalia’s current state and charting a responsible U.S. foreign policy, however, require putting the fragmented pieces of Somalia’s history back together.

Unlike most of the countries within the Horn of Africa, Somalia
does not possess wide ethnic and linguistic diversity. However, competition
between clans for resources and political power fuels conflict and has been
easily manipulated by foreign powers. With its close proximity to the oil-rich Middle East, Somalia has long been the site of
geopolitical struggles, especially during the Cold War.

In 1960, Somalia received its independence from two separate
colonial powers: Britain and Italy. In 1969, after a decade-long experiment
with multi-party democracy, the army’s senior official, Mohamed Siad Barre led
a military coup with the backing of the Soviet Union. Five years later, Barre
attempted to expand the territory of Somalia by invading its neighbor,
Ethiopia, which had been backed by the United States for the previous two
decades. Thus, the Horn of Africa became a proxy for the larger Cold War
struggle between the Soviets and Americans. The ensuing three-year war brought
much loss of life, and alliances changed as the Soviets shifted their aid to

The experience of war left Somalia splintered, and for the
next decade, intermittent civil war ensued with various rebel factions, some of
whom were funded by the Soviets. Following the Soviet shift, the U.S. Carter
Administration began to support Barre’s regime in Somalia. In 1979, President
Carter issued his Carter Doctrine, which stated that the U.S. would use
military force if necessary to protect American security interests in the
Middle East, especially access to oil. The Carter Doctrine ensured that Somalia
would remain a strategic site in U.S. foreign policy for decades to come. For
the next decade, the U.S. provided massive amounts of foreign assistance to the
Somali warlord regime, including substantial military aid.

The end of the 1980s brought the advent of outright civil
war in Somalia as a loose coalition of armed clans fought against the central
regime. In 1991, the Barre regime was overthrown and the country thrown into
anarchy as numerous clans contended for control. The turmoil was exacerbated by
nationwide famine. The United Nations Security Council, led by the U.S.,
quickly implemented a United Nations peacekeeping operation to make the
country safe for humanitarian aid delivery. The U.S.-led mission had initial
success, but withdrew prematurely after eighteen U.S. troops were killed and dragged
through the streets of Mogadishu in October 1993. By 1995, the UN mission had
completely abandoned Somalia to lawlessness and anarchy.

Yet, while U.S. troops were withdrawn from the country, the
U.S. did not forget about Somalia. After the terrorist attacks of September 11,
2001, the U.S. increased its presence in the Horn of Africa with the Combined
Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), based in Djibouti. The stated
mission of CJTF-HOA is “to detect, disrupt and defeat terrorists who pose an imminent
threat to coalition partners in the region.” CJTF-HOA contains at least 1,600
personnel, including at least 400 active duty U.S. troops. There is also
evidence that the task force includes a large number of special operations
forces. In recent months, further evidence has emerged that the U.S. has again
been involved in Somalia, supporting warlord factions in the name of
counterterrorism. Over the last year, battles between the U.S.-supported
factions and Islamic militias have caused death, destruction and greater

Yet, there is still hope for peace and stability in Somalia:
both of which are in the interest of the United States. In 2004, after talks in
Kenya, warlord factions and political officials agreed to establish a new
parliament and appoint a president. This government has been unable, though, to
unite the country, particularly because of fighting in the southern region of the country. In
recent weeks, however, this fighting has stopped as the Union of Islamic Courts
has taken control and sought to unite the various factions. There is potential
that the courts and the northern-based government can engage in peace talks.

Responding to events of late, with the support of the US and
many EU countries, diplomats in New York have established the International
Contact Group on Somalia. The group has called for an end to the fighting and
for peace talks to commence. There have been discussions, dating back to mid
2005, to deploy a regional military force to stabilize the country. Now is a
critical time for the world community, particularly the U.S. because of its
tarnished history in the country, to act decisively in support of a robust
Somali peace process. Such a process ought not to be fueled by geopolitical
strategy, but by the wishes and needs of clan elders, religious leaders and the
people of Somalia who have become tired of war.

A country profile for Somalia can be found here.