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Waltzing with warlords { June 20 1993 }

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Waltzing With Warlords; Will the West Make Martyrs of Thugs in Somalia?
by Jennifer Parmelee

The Washington Post
Sunday, June 20, 1993; Page c1
Section: OUTLOOK
Word Count: 2252

ONE OF the most astonishing images I carry with me from the Somali cauldron is this: A small boy, all eyes and skinny limbs, sidles up to the flank of a towering steel-jawed American Marine, flak jacket exposing impressive musculature of neck and forearms, M-16 rifle at the ready. In a flash, the child snatches at the Marine's rear pocket, but is grabbed by the scruff of the neck before he can lift anything of value.

This is not a one-time snapshot of snail-darter-challenges-tyrannosaurus rex (and loses), but a scenario played out incessantly in Somalia, in various forms. There are the kids in Mogadishu who like to swipe the mirrored sunglasses from the noses of soldiers in armored vehicles. The packs of Somali teenagers who, against crazy odds, attempt again and again to storm the wall of the American compound.

Finally there is, in adult form, the disturbingly telegenic vision of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aideed engaged in a dangerous high-stakes test of wills with the United Nations and, by extension, with the world's only superpower.

These are the sorts of phenomena that tend to make outsiders sputter with impotent rage and demand: "What the hell is wrong with these people?" I have said it myself, even while knowing that for every brazen kid who'd try to pick a Marine's pocket, there are at least a dozen others who, like children anywhere, would melt in delight at a GI's offer of chocolate.

It's tempting to brand these people as incorrigible and ungrateful, impossible to understand and perhaps not worth the effort. It's even more seductive if we're thinking of abandoning ship. After all, we tried to feed them and look what it got us?

And yet while Aideed and the unruly little boys are undoubtedly imprinted with certain Somali "national characteristics," there is a more universal phenomenon at work. The Israelis might call it "chutzpah" and the streetwise in the Bronx something else. In simple terms, it is an act of defiance: pulling the dragon's tail. Ho Chi Minh and Khomeini, Castro and Noriega, Saddam and Gadhafi have all tried it with varying success. And repeatedly, when it comes to dealing with populist leaders in the Third World, America finds itself playing the role of the aggrieved dragon. The human costs of such contests, unfortunately, tend to be high. And in the end, most of the characters and regimes who taunted the dragon are still around, some now larger than life, thanks to the big stage that is a confrontation with the United States.

It is thus with a disconcerting sense of deja vu that I pick up the morning paper to read statements by unnamed Pentagon and State Department officials who talk boldly of "rendering [Aideed] combat-ineffective" or "taking Aideed off the board." It stirs flashbacks of covering Libyan Col. Moammar Gadhafi's on-off struggle with the United States. Perodically he was revived as a global villain and U.S. officials would threaten to "knock him down to size." Yet, 12 years after his first significant clash with America, Gadhafi remains on the perch he's held since 1969. U.S. presidents tend to forget: Standing up to Uncle Sam often plays extremely well to a home audience.

Nor should we forget that Gadhafi, like Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, benefited from covert U.S. assistance before our relationships soured. So too, Aideed's current persona is in some ways our design -- and by "us," I mean the Western governments, the U.N. and the media.

First, there's history. For strategic objectives that have since been disowned, the United States and the Soviet Union struggled mightily in the Horn of Africa, propping up two ruthless dictators -- Ethiopia's Mengistu Haile Mariam and Somalia's Mohamed Siad Barre -- and leaving the two countries awash in military hardware. This is the same hardware that brought Aideed to where he is today, a fact that should spell a cautionary tale for the Clinton administration, which has yet to stem an ever-increasing flow of U.S. arms to the Third World.

Until 1991, when Siad Barre was overthrown, Somalia received more per-capita development money than any other sub-Saharan African country. You wouldn't know it to look at the carcass of Somalia today; before the wholesale looting of the last two years, Siad Barre diverted huge sums to his personal use, to that of the military and to his clan and cronies. Food aid became a growth industry. In a 1987 visit, I remember an American diplomat remarking that Somalia was the only country where more aid was trucked out of refugee camps than in. America turned a mostly blind eye to this corruption, sending an inadvertent message that lingers: Stealing from foreign charities was okay.

Siad Barre's subversion of the traditional clan system and the steady breakdown in social values set the stage for the catastrophe that has stretched out agonizingly for more than two years. As one Somali Red Cross worker lamented to me, "Somewhere along the way, we Somalis lost all notion of the common good."

Enter Aideed, a canny opportunist who saw his chance to redress physical and material grievances by driving out Siad Barre. Aideed, as well as the other powerful warlords, sprang from the barrel of a gun -- not from any traditional clan stature. Historian I.M. Lewis, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics who knows Somalia better than most outsiders, says these men owe their prominence solely to their skill in leading the marauding looters who plunged Somalia into chaos and famine. "Many Somalis regard them as war criminals," he wrote recently. "They have no moral authority or political legitimacy, and their violence has severely distorted the Somali political scene. This is one reason the disarmament initiative is crucial."

Aideed's true colors have been evident from the outset. When Operation Restore Hope was first announced, Aideed told a visiting diplomat from Eritrea that he was looking forward to "fighting alongside of the Americans." Told that the Americans were more likely to disarm his men than treat them as partners, Aideed snapped back, "If that's the case, we will fight the Americans to the last man."

Aideed's ambitions for a "partnership" with the United States was nurtured when U.S. envoy Robert Oakley moved into his neighborhood -- right down the block from Aideed's compound. This gave many Somalis the impression that Aideed was the Americans' "most favored player." In addition, the haphazard and apparently half-hearted U.S. approach to disarmament seemed to convince Aideed that he need not worry. Most of his arsenal remained intact until the air and ground assaults of recent days.

At the Somali peace talks in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Aideed and a handful of other powerful warlords were treated as honored dignitaries. My first personal encounter with Aideed, in fact, was at a lavish cocktail party thrown by the U.N. at which Aideed basked in the glow of TV lights. Against this surreal backdrop, the general pulled a tight smile over his prominent teeth, thumped his palm against his chest and assured me, "I am a man of peace." It was hard to know how to reply, especially to a leader whose henchmen are known to routinely pass along death threats to journalists he doesn't like.

The U.N., meanwhile, caved into one power play after another. During the second round of peace talks in March, Aideed's delegation stalked out because of what it claimed was U.S. and U.N. support of Aideed's rival, Mohamed Said Hersi "Morgan," who had overrun some of Aideed's positions in the port of Kismaayo. Instead of proceeding without Aideed, the conference was held up for days until the general was finally cajoled into returning.

"I have never in my 12 years with the U.N. seen it give in to men like this," confided a U.N. bureaucrat. "They are common criminals. It is shameful." Many Somalis on the sidelines of the process were also deeply disillusioned by the starring role given the warlords in what was billed as a national reconciliation process. To be fair, we in the media made -- and are still making -- our own contribution to the Aideed persona. Typically, when Aideed arrived 30 minutes late to make a dramatic solo entrance into the final signing ceremony, we swallowed our disgust and ran after him for a quote. So sorry, he responded, but he was pressed for time. Maybe later.

Time and again, I asked the powers that be -- the U.N., the United States -- "Aren't you giving these guys too much prominence?" The reply invariably came back: "They're the players. We've got to play ball with them." And so, the world waltzed with the warlords.

Over the past few months, Aideed has, however, seen his base of power -- meaning his armed might -- slowly dwindle. Oakley's successor, Robert Gosende, refused to meet Aideed at his own headquarters, insisting on neutral ground. Aideed reportedly was infuriated. As one State Department official put it, "He expected to be anointed president of Somalia and discovered that wasn't in the cards."

The only hopeful interpretation I can find of the ambush of U.N. peacekeepers on June 5 is that it is the desperate act of a man who knows he's losing the game. This time, such an outrage could not go unanswered. Even the most pacific currents among the U.N. community felt it was high time Aideed was stopped, although some opposed blind force. But arresting Aideed, satisfying as it may be, will not solve the underlying problem. Putting him in leg irons may ignite widespread anti-U.S. passions that will make it tough for the already beleaguered humanitarians to do their jobs. Other warlords wait in the wings. Ali Mahdi Mohamed, Aideed's chief rival, may cut a respectable figure in his Italian-made suits, but his militias are every bit as blood-soaked as those of Aideed.

If Aideed lacks a significant popular following now -- as the experts and many ordinary Somalis tell us -- martyring him will surely create one. Aideed has many hallmarks of a promising demagogue. He's a canny power-player, an inflammatory orator, and is willing to exploit any PR opportunities -- even to using women and children as human shields.

Another card Aideed is likely to play, as Saddam did, is Islam. In a recent tour of the Gulf, Aideed portrayed himself as a born-again Muslim fundamentalist. Given the fragile and volatile nature of Somali society, where radical Islamic groups offer the best-organized social support structures, and the current anti-Western sentiments of Muslim hardliners, any alliance betwen Aideed and radical Islam makes this a potentially very dangerous engagement indeed.

Whatever is done with or to Aideed, Somalia must not be left in the lurch. In Panama, at least, the United States left some form of government in its wake.

What do we leave if we "take out" Aideed and run for cover? The outside world has made only the most superficial stabs at exploring alternative leadership to the warlords, and this must be corrected if a political solution is to be reached. Former U.N. envoy Mohamed Sahnoun recognized that the clan system could be utilized to rebuild society: He knew how to play to its strengths rather than bemoan its weaknesses.

Peter Stocker, who worked for four years as head of the International Red Cross delegation to Somalia, says clan elders need to be re-empowered. "In normal times, the elders had power. They were able to give jobs, which meant they could support whole families," he said. "Over the past two years, they have lost the means to do so. So when you come into a town and ask the elders to help, you have a responsibility to reinforce their authority."

Working with traditional leaders, as well as bringing in alternative sources of power -- like women -- at all levels, will allow the international commuity to go beyond mere lip service to "grassroots participation." Such participation, despite being a platitude, is the trademark of virtually every successful development initiative in the world today.

Finally, rehabilitation money must start flowing. In a typically impulsive American burst of generosity, we threw more than a billion dollars at Somalia for Restore Hope. But the donor community has yet to make even a dent in the $ 142 million pledged to reconstruction and rehabilitation at the Somali humanitarian conference last March. Failure to live up to this promise will only discourage the vast majority of Somalis who would like nothng more than a quiet home to live in. Conversely, it will encourage the would-be dragonslayers like Aideed in Somalia and elsewhere to take matters into their own hands. That would be a disgraceful ending to a remarkable humanitarian initiative, an expensive Band-Aid over a deep wound that merely festered.

Jennifer Parmelee is a special correspondent for The Washington Post based in Ethiopia and editor of the Humanitarian Monitor, a journal covering the Horn of Africa.

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