Fred Hiatt on Why Air Strikes Are Wrong in Somalia but Good in Iraq

It’s because air strikes in Somalia have caused unacceptable amounts of civilian casualties, have led to a refugee crisis, and have served as a recruiting tool for terrorists.

TOMAHAWK MISSILES fired by a U.S. Navy ship demolished a house in central Somalia on Thursday and killed a vicious militia leader and al-Qaeda operative. It was a victory for the Bush administration’s counterterrorism operations in Africa — and a demonstration of the limits of a strategy based almost entirely on “over the horizon” military strikes.

Aden Hashi Ayro, the man who was killed, deserved the label of “evildoer.” As chief of the extremist al-Shabab militia, he supervised and probably participated in the murder of foreign aid workers, teachers, an Italian nun and a British journalist while directing al-Shabab’s insurgency against the shaky, internationally backed Somali government. As al-Qaeda’s chief liaison in the Horn of Africa, Mr. Ayro coordinated the movements of militants and money, and he sheltered several of the suspects in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. His death is at least a temporary setback for al-Qaeda and al-Shabab — which was recently designated a terrorist group by the State Department — and might even make it easier for more moderate Islamic leaders to participate in peace talks that the United Nations is trying to set up.

But Thursday’s U.S. operation had a distinct downside: At least two dozen other people were killed in the attack, some of them apparently civilians. Al-Shabab responded defiantly, and Somalia-watchers said new leaders for the militia and al-Qaeda will quickly come forward, while fresh recruits may be gained through a backlash against the American intervention. The attack was the fifth U.S. airstrike in Somalia aimed at individuals with al-Qaeda ties since the beginning of 2007. While at least one other operative was killed, some of the attacks appear to have missed their targets while injuring civilians.

Somalia itself, meanwhile, has grown steadily more dangerous. The government, which is backed by Ethiopian troops, has lost ground to Islamist and tribal insurgents, and fighting has destroyed a large part of Mogadishu, the capital, while displacing up to 60 percent of the city’s population, or 700,000 people. Famine is a distinct danger: The United Nations says that 2.6 million Somalis are in need of food aid and that the number could rise by the end of the year to 3.5 million — half the country’s population. The State Department has been supportive of the U.N. attempt to start peace talks, but most of the limited U.S. resources devoted to the country have been aimed at tracking down and killing al-Qaeda leaders and their allies.

Somalia is a cautionary example for those who, like Barack Obama, favor rapidly withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq and managing any threat from al-Qaeda with an “over the horizon” strike force. Such forces indeed have the ability to target and kill leaders. They do nothing, however, to change the conditions under which al-Qaeda finds refuge and recruits. As Gen. David H. Petraeus is demonstrating in Iraq, successful counterterrorism requires providing security for the civilian population, economic reconstruction and the brokering of political accords — in other words, nation-building. That’s as true in Somalia as it is in Iraq.

Apparently, dead civilians, millions of refugees, and fresh terror recruits in Iraq don’t count, because our military is occupying the country.

Says Glenn Greenwald, “It’s hard to recall a more incoherent argument than this.”

Self-evidently, every problem that Hiatt argues is created by “mere” air strikes against other countries is magnified by many magnitudes by the types of invasions and long-term occupations which Hiatt cheers on for Iraq. Unlike the handful of civilians killed by the Somalian air strike, Hiatt’s Glorious War in Iraq has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians (though the exact number is debated because we don’t really bother to count).

While 700,000 people are displaced in Somalia due to internal strife, Hiatt’s Glorious Invasion and Occupation of Iraq has resulted in the displacement of 4 million Iraqis. While continuous U.S. bombing of countries in the Middle East and North Africa obviously inflames anti-American sentiment around the world, thus aiding Al Qaeda’s recruitment, Hiatt’s desired endless occupation of Iraq does more for that cause than any other policy. Citing the harms from air strikes on Somalia as a reason to continue to bomb, invade and occupy Iraq is the height of incoherent self-justification from a desperate and disgraced war cheerleader.

Nevertheless, the sober and sensible war supporters on the right see no lapse in logic:

The Washington Post talks about an over-the-horizon strike conducted by the US Navy against an al-Qaeda leader in Somalia. The attack was made with a Tomahawk missile.


Great. Got one. And by all accounts, we got a bad one. If we believe Somali reports, we also “got” 20 civilians who were in and around the house (the ubiquitous “collateral damage”).

Some, of course, will argue that the deaths of such innocents are sometimes a necessary evil we must endure in order to take out a much larger evil. I disagree. I always bring such statements down to a personal level to try to sort out my feelings about such things. I’m sure I’d find it less than acceptable if a foreign government fired a missile at a house near mine to kill an alleged terrorist and also ended up killing some of my family members who knew nothing about the man but happened to be outside working in the garden.

I guess McQ does not go through that sorting out process when missiles fired at houses in Iraq kill family members, including two-year-old babies.

3 Responses to “Fred Hiatt on Why Air Strikes Are Wrong in Somalia but Good in Iraq”

  1. Cain says:

    “Apparently, dead civilians, millions of refugees, and fresh terror recruits in Iraq don’t count, because our military is occupying the country.”

    What circumstances do they count under ?
    A couple of years ago, the Centre for American Progress was promoting a Iraq redeployment strategy which suggested the civil war violence could be addressed by the Navy monitoring it from over the horizon, once all the troops were withdrawn.

    Now they may still be advocating this in their updated strategy papers, but I wouldn’t know because enshrining tacit approval of a genocide campaign in one policy document prevents me reading the next one you produce.

  2. McQ says:

    “I guess McQ does not go through that sorting out process when missiles fired at houses in Iraq kill family members, including two-year-old babies.”

    Yeah, actually I do. I don’t like it anymore in Iraq than I liked it in Vietnam or my father liked it in Italy or France. I understand that it happens and I also know why – first hand. That doesn’t mean it is acceptable as a routine occurrence.

    I think we should do everything in our power to avoid it if humanly possible. And, for the most part we do avoid it better than any military in history. That’s why we have strict ROI, a stepped escalation of the level of violence used based on the threat, and use precision guided munitions.

    While I don’t have an opportunity to acknowledge every bomb or missile that might have killed innocent people elsewhere, this particular editorial gave me the opportunity to note the point and speak out about it.

    Same with torture. There is no reason or excuse any agency of the United States should ever engage in torture. Period. And that is precisely what our blog has said (and taken enormous flak for it).

    That said, no, I don’t think the war in Iraq is either immoral or illegal to answer your next question. I think it is a legitimate exercise of our war powers in connection with a national security issue. And yes, that makes me a war supporter – but with no “lapse in logic” or ducking the hard fact about what war is and its effect. It remains a human tragedy when, even accidentally, war brings death to innocents.

  3. Kathy says:


    Well, I don’t agree that our military does everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties, and I think the underlying premise itself (that the fact our military uses targeting technology means we are trying to avoid civilian casualties and are not intentionally incurring them) is deeply flawed. Immoral is a subjective values call, I suppose, but illegal is objectively measurable, and this war is illegal according to the international protocols the U.S. itself helped create. Those who argue that it is not illegal are basically engaging in a ‘might makes right’ argument, not an argument based in standing legal principles.

    If U.S. national security had truly been threatened by Saddam Hussein’s regime, I might have supported war (and I say “might” because I also am not a believer in war as a solution to human conflict), but our national security was not threatened. And the national security arguments that are being made now, by war supporters such as yourself, are arguing from conditions that are actually the *result* of the invasion and occupation, and that would not have existed without it. In other words, war supporters are using the very harmful, dangerous conditions that the U.S. invasion/occupation created to argue that our national security interests are threatened. If our national security interests are threatened, it’s U.S. policy in Iraq for the past five years that led to that result, so the argument that we have to stay in Iraq to protect those interests makes no sense.

    And of course, you have not explained why civilian casualties, a massive refugee problem, and increased terrorism are indicators of a failed U.S. military pollicy in Somalia, and simultaneously are indicators of a successful (or necessary) U.S. military policy in Iraq.

    When you write, “[War] remains a human tragedy when, even accidentally, war brings death to innocents,” I don’t at all or for one moment doubt your sincerity, but I think you are making a very fundamental error in logic: The death of innocents (and innocents being made homeless and suffering and dying from lack of basic necessities of life such as food and clean water) is not, as you imply here, an accidental or incidental side effect of war — it IS war. War IS the violent death and maiming and displacement of massive numbers of innocent civilians. In that sense, when one supports war, one IS supporting all these terrible outcomes, because that is what war is.

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