The U.S. made a critical mistake during Somalia’s last famine. Will we repeat it?

The Washington Post
Nairobi, Kenya

A newly registered Somali refugee outside a registration and medical aid facility at the Dadaab Internally Displaced People (IDP) camp in eastern Kenya in 2011. (Tony Karumba/AFP)

Later this year, a drought in Somalia will likely become a famine. Hundreds of thousands of people are at risk. International aid agencies will scramble to deliver food and medical care. As usual, most of those who may die will be children.

It will be the third famine to tear through Somalia in a quarter-century, a rate of starvation unmatched on Earth. The scenario is familiar to the United States, which has intervened in the previous famines with disastrous results. This time, the United States has a chance to get it right.

Somalia’s harsh land makes life tenuous. Drought is common but when combined with conflict it turns deadly on a massive scale. In 1992, U.S. forces joined a United Nations effort to stop the starvation that followed a military dictator’s overthrow by a coalition of clan warlords. The Marines’ ability to protect food deliveries from thieving gunmen was crucial to ending the famine, which nevertheless killed more than 220,000 people.

But the humanitarian intervention degenerated into a manhunt as the United States sought a powerful militia leader who threatened international efforts to resolve the conflict. A botched raid ended with the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in a military disaster captured in the book and film “Black Hawk Down.” The United States withdrew from Somalia — followed by the rest of the world — abandoning the country and its people to the warlords.

When a deep drought struck the region again in 2011, al-Shabab controlled much of the country. Suspicious of Western humanitarian agencies, the militants refused to allow aid in nor would they let people out.

Under strict U.S. regulations aimed at countering terrorism financing, aid agencies faced possible prosecution if supplies were to find their way into the hands of al-Shabab, a group with links to al-Qaeda.What aid workers euphemistically call “diversion” is an accepted reality: A portion of whatever they supply will be stolen by someone, whether unscrupulous officials, corrupt local partners, greedy business people, gunmen or al-Shabab. It’s the cost of working, but the threat of U.S. prosecution made it a price most aid agencies were unwilling to pay.

Of course, the United States did not create the famine in Somalia, but its policies contributed to the 260,000 deaths in the 2010 to 2012 famine by making it more difficult for aid to reach victims. Now as famine looms again, the U.S. government has an opportunity to learn the lessons of the past. Unfortunately, it is showing little sign of doing so.

Today, aid workers in Somalia remain wary of — and inhibited by — the same U.S. anti-terrorism laws.  The priority for the United States when it comes to the aid agencies remains war-fighting — the United States has requested that aid agencies reveal their locations to the U.S. military to avoid being bombed.

Though al-Shabab is weaker than six years ago, last week’s killing of a Navy SEAL outside Mogadishu underscores the dangers that the group still poses inside Somalia. Al-Shabab has lost control of all major towns, leaving an opportunity to get aid to more parts of the country, preventing the sort of horror I saw in 2011.

The United Nations has received 70 percent of the $825 million it needs to help Somalia’s starving during the first half of this year ($153 million from the United States). That support must be extended to prevent the death toll from exceeding those of years past.

There is a rare political opportunity in Somalia. The new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, is a Somali American who comes to office with a good track record from his brief stint as prime minister in 2010-2011. He has immense goodwill, faces immense challenges and requires immense support because al-Shabab feeds on state weakness.

For more than a decade, al-Shabab has survived and adapted to attacks from U.S. drones and from an African Union army many times its size, yet it has not been defeated by military means. President Trump’s recent orders to loosen rules on missile strikes in Somalia and deploy a few dozen regular troops will not change that. The only end to al-Shabab’s insurgency will be a negotiated one. The United States must abandon its War on Terror myopia in favor of pragmatism.

Al-Shabab’s experience during the 2011 famine was dismal as it lost much of its popular support and territory. At  least on the issue of aid access, the current drought is an opportunity to open a line of dialogue with the group. There are precedents for senior Islamist leaders becoming U.S. allies, former Somali president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and southern regional president Ahmed Madobe are two such examples.

Providing financial support for famine relief while creating political space for talks with al-Shabab are the best paths to mitigating the coming famine and preventing the others that will surely follow if the wrong action — or no action — is taken.