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Answers and Analysis: Somalia and Afghanistan

Trivia:When was the last time Somalia had a stable, permanent government? What foreign powers sought influence in Somalia and Afghanistan in the past?  

Answers: Somalia has not had a stable government since 1991. The Soviet Union and the United States have played important roles in both conflicts. Ethiopia and Pakistan, the countries’ neighbors, have also attempted to extend their influence within Somalia and Afghanistan, respectively.   

Discussion Questions:Why have international forces invaded Afghanistan but not Somalia?  What key characteristics do Somalia and Afghanistan share in common? What makes each conflict distinct? Should Somalia’s profile rise internationally, as Afghanistan’s has in recent years?  

Discussion Analysis

Both Somalia and Afghanistan have been mired in chaos for more than a decade. Each has, in its own time, been plagued by bouts of communism (per the oft-unwanted Soviet influence), civil war, Islamic extremism and the threat of terrorism. Somalia continues to be besieged by war and fundamentalism, with few allies willing to help. Yet in Afghanistan, international forces attempt to crush once and for all its Islamist insurgents and the terrorist networks spanning from there.   

During the 1980s, both the Soviet Union and the United States vied to influence Somalia, as they did in Afghanistan. Somalia flirted with whichever power was willing to give it more aid and military assistance; Afghanistan, in the meantime, violently opposed the secularism of communism with the help of U.S. weapons and training. Yet Soviets and Americans alike left the country to its own fate after the departure of Soviet troops from the country, and ignored the civil war that followed.  

Somalia was similarly neglected after the collapse of the Cold War, and its own civil war – which continues to this day – has come to be regarded as an international nightmare. The UN and the United States have refrained from taking any significant role in the country after Operation Restore Hope failed and the Black Hawk Down incident damaged U.S. resolve to intervene in African violence.    

In the years since, both Somalia and Afghanistan have found the powerful influence of their neighbors a problematic challenge. Pakistan supported the Taliban in the 1990s and continues to offer safe haven to thousands of Afghan Taliban militants, but its recent alliance with the United States (and increasing willingness to capture Taliban leaders within its borders) threatens to disrupt that support. Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia and attempts to influence the emergence of a government there has outraged Somalis and helped al Shabaab recruit youth to expel all foreign influences, from meddling neighbors and major powers.  

Islamic extremism has also played a large part in the social climate of both countries. In Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged after tribes which had previously been united in fighting the Soviet occupation began warring each other. The Taliban’s authoritarian rule established the law and order – albeit strict and medieval – the country so woefully lacked, uniting the country by the force of Islam. Al Shabaab would like to do the same in Afghanistan. They have already done so in the large swaths of southern and central Somalia which they control, where the rule of law is Sharia.  

The strongest difference between the two is the reason why international forces have invaded Afghanistan and left Somalia to its own – terrorist networks have already found their safe haven in the mountainous and cavernous terrain of Afghanistan, whereas terrorism is considered a fledgling enterprise in ravaged Somalia. Al Qaeda’s presence in Somalia has inspired concern, but not enough for international forces – or even international organizations – to consider providing more aid to the country. Only African Union peacekeepers remain stationed there, and only in Mogadishu. NGOs providing humanitarian assistance have been driven out by intensifying threats from al Shabaab and charges of corruption against the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The $200 million in aid pledged in April 2009 has never materialized. More than 80,000 Somalis have been displaced so far in 2010, but the world has taken little notice.  

With al Shaabab’s now explicit allegiance to al Qaeda, Somalia could very well see a Taliban-like regime (akin to the Islamic Courts which briefly ruled the country in 2006) arise if the rebels are successful in routing the TFG. Al Shabaab has successfully recruited thousands of foreign fighters to join their jihad, including some Somali-Americans. The fear is that training camps will be established in Somalia, providing al Qaeda the opportunity to continue planning attacks if coalition forces remove the remaining Taliban militants from Afghanistan and plunging Somalia into further chaos. Al Shabaabs international network is growing, and as such poses a growing threat. 

-Carolina Chacon, National Conflicts of Concern Education Coordinator



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