Somalia Famine: Is there a Case for Military Intervention?

18 Sep

An August 4th report on the Somalia Famine, from the US State Department’s Famine Early Warning System, states that:

  • Current humanitarian response is inadequate to meet emergency needs. As a result, famine is expected to spread across all regions of the south in the coming 4‐6 weeks.
  •  In total, 3.7 million people are currently in crisis nationwide; among these, 3.2 million people need immediate, lifesaving assistance (2.8 million in the south). As of early July, 390,000 children under five are acutely malnourished,170,000 severely; 81 percent of acutely malnourished children live in the south.
  • The current situation represents Africa’s worst food security crisis since Somalia’s 1991/92 famine. A massive multisectoral response is critical to prevent additional deaths and total livelihood/social collapse. Most immediately, interventions to improve food access and to address health/nutrition issues are needed. In the medium term, interventions to rebuild and support livelihoods are critical. Extraordinary measures to provide these responses should be implemented. These assistance needs will persist through at least December 2011.

A month later and tens of thousands have died.  With no significant international response forthcoming, the UN warns of a possible 750,000 deaths in the coming months as the famine spreads to all of Somalia and the fall rains increase the likelihood of illness before any crops get a chance to grow.

Adding insult (insult = horrific and pointless death and disaster) to injury (injury = a fucking famine, really, on its own a bad enough event), the militant group controlling much of Somalia, Al-Shabab, continues to keep the aid community out and the new transitional “government” in Mogadishu fails to do much better than the militants.

A Times article on the unlikeliness of a response draws the parallel the early 1990’s, when a similar famine in Somalia precipitated a failed response that affected American interventionist policy for the coming decades.

In a way, this is all déjà vu. In the early 1990s, Somalia was hit by famine, precipitated by drought and similarly callous thugs blocking food aid and producing similarly appalling images of skeletal children dying in the sand.

But in the 1990s, the world was more willing to intervene. The United Nations rallied behind more than 25,000 American troops, who embarked on a multibillion-dollar mission to beat back the gunmen long enough to get food into the mouths of starving people.

The United Nations urged American forces to disarm the warlords and their flip-flop-clad militias, but the Pentagon did not want to risk many American lives to do that. Instead, the United States opted for a narrowly scoped intervention and then hastily withdrew after 18 servicemen were killed in an epic street battle immortalized in the “Black Hawk Down” book and movie (and video game). According to a study by the Refugee Policy Group, the American-led operation and the attendant relief effort saved around 110,000 lives, while 240,000 were lost to the famine.

The Somalia intervention in 1993 is most often viewed as a case against military intervention.

“There’s no mood for intervention,” said one American official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “People remember what happened in the 1990s. ‘It doesn’t work’ was the conclusion.” (From the same article)

Development Economist, Paul Collier, takes an altogether different view. Advocating reasoned, pragmatic military intervention for such obvious cases of need as the Somali famine, Collier says:

“What we have seen are wild policy lurches on anything to do with security,” Collier goes on. “We left Somalia without government for 15 years because 18 American soldiers were killed there. The lesson was seen to be: ‘after Somalia, never intervene’. So we allowed 800,000 people to be butchered in Rwanda. Then we over-reacted the other way in Iraq. Getting it right doesn’t mean going to either extreme. British troops, for instance, have done a hugely beneficial job in Sierra Leone. And I’ve just come back from Haiti, where 7,000 Brazilian troops are keeping the peace.”

From this article in the Guardian.

In contrast, Bronwyn E. Bruton a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, advocates disengagement with Somalia:

“I don’t think that there’s a case to be made that the famine can be mitigated through military intervention…(The African Union, which has 9,000 peacekeepers in Mogadishu) isn’t able to safeguard the delivery of aid in Mogadishu. How could they possibly extend their reach outside the capital?” (From the same times article)

It seems a little too easy to advocate against military intervention. But, with 750,000 people on the brink disengagement has a staggering cost. That said, Burton does not advocate doing nothing. Her “constructive disengagement” policy advocates recognizing the governing legitimacy of groups like Al Shabab as long as they allow humanitarian intervention. But with plenty of money to be made looting UN convoys, how strong is the legitimacy incentive?

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