In a chilling Washington Post op-ed, Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden called Somalia a “laboratory for anarchy,” an apt description for a country that has simmered on the brink of chaos off and on—but mostly on—for the past eighteen years. Lacking a functioning central government since 1991, Somalia has played host to regional proxy wars, warlord politics, and more recently pirates and Islamist extremism in the form of a ruthless militia known as the Shabaab.
Bowden’s op-ed highlights the grim realities of what happens when the international community simply gives up on a failed state. In Mogadishu (and undoubtedly throughout the country) there is a stunning lack of social services—no functioning public universities, no trash collection, failing health services, and the list goes on. On the political front, the latest chapter in a bloody, nearly two decades-old power struggle has resulted in the rise of Islamic extremism, which feels like one of the few options left to war-weary Somalis – other than fleeing their country. As Bowden notes, “even harsh religious government, it seems, is preferable to no government at all” – and it is impossible not to be reminded of the situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban. (Many Afghans initially welcomed the Taliban after years of dealing with rapacious warlords).
There is no quick fix in Somalia, certainly not in the form of a hastily assembled and ill-conceived UN peacekeeping operation. See Enough’s recent strategy paper on Somalia to help better understand the potential blowback of such an approach. The international community seems to be forgetting a basic guiding principle for both medicine and foreign policy: it is important to engage, but only in ways that do not make things much, much worse.