Somalia: a dangerous moment.
After the disaster of Iraq and the continuing nightmare in Afghanistan, many, myself included, thought that finally it had been driven into our thick skulls that military intervention in the Arab world/Middle East did not end well. Even if this realisation hadn't taken root, then the recession meant there was no money left in reserve for extended action. Then the Arab spring happened, to the surprise of every Western government, just as they were staggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the space of three weeks the opposition in Libya went from saying that they didn't need outside help to demanding international action, and getting it. A year on, Gaddafi dead, and Libya overall is only in slightly better shape than Syria, where Assad clings onto power by massacring those who have risen against him, just as Gaddafi had threatened to do to Benghazi.
The thing is, Libya proves we have learned something from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans went into both countries with ourselves on their coattails saying that they wouldn't be engaging in something as sappy as nation building, only to change their minds once the initial fighting was over. With Libya, our politicians presented the NTC as ready to take charge the moment Gaddafi was hunted down, even when it seemed probable that it was just a temporary construct that would fall apart once its reason for coming together was over. With all the separate militias refusing during the war itself to work together, they were hardly likely to overcome their differences afterwards. Instead of involving ourselves in these fripperies, we just got the hell out as soon as we could declare mission accomplished. In Iraq and Afghanistan our use of conventional ground forces meant that when we broke it, we owned it; in Libya we just did the damage from the air, with the Libyans themselves owning the result.
Like Kosovo convinced Tony Blair that it was better to intervene than leave well alone, so it now seems that Libya has emboldened the next generation of leaders. It's true that this is less clear cut than it was back then: our failure to push harder for action against Syria proves that. It has though shoved the experience of Iraq further back into the collective memory, even while the "forgotten" war in Afghanistan continues. There simply isn't any other convincing explanation for why else we'd ever imagine that getting involved in Somalia would be anything like a good idea; for all the talk about the pirates based there and the potential threat posed by al-Shabaab, neither are truly crucial problems. The introduction of armed guards on shipping seems to have had a dramatic effect on the number of boats being seized, while the affiliation of al-Shabaab to al-Qaida seems more an act of desperation than one of strength. There is always a chance that some of those apparently travelling to Somalia to fight on the side of al-Shabaab may return and then decide to launch attacks here as is feared, but it seems far more probable that the camps in Pakistan will remain more attractive for those determined to bring the war home.
Tempting as it is to conclude that Somalia will remain a failed state, you can't help but hope that today's conference is a step towards stability. It is just that though, a step. One suspects that Amison and the transitional forces will continue to gain ground, but that as in Iraq and Afghanistan al-Shabaab will turn to typical guerilla tactics, and I fear, potentially even to the mass suicide attacks that the Islamic State of Iraq became infamous for. Despite Hillary Clinton today saying that air strikes wouldn't be a good idea, something more than slightly rich when the US has been carrying out drone attacks in the country as recently as last month, you also feel that we've reached one of those moments when the government is emboldened enough to imagine that they can't possibly make things any worse. And despite my sarky opening paragraph, such moments are always incredibly dangerous.