The ongoing famine in Somalia has placed millions of Somalis at risk. On August 5, the U.S. government estimated that the famine had taken the lives of more than 29,000 children under the age of five. A total of 3.7 million Somalis -- almost half the country's population -- are in need of emergency relief, and more than 750,000 are now in refugee camps in neighboring countries.
For several weeks, it appeared that the international community would be unable to aid those suffering from starvation. But developments over the past two weeks offer at least modest hope that key obstacles to food aid delivery may be overcome.
The conditions that led to Somalia's famine were already apparent late last year. The country had been beset by corruption, political instability, and an insurgency pitting 9,000 African Union peacekeepers, protecting a weak transitional government, against al Shabab, an Islamist group with ties to al Qaeda that controls southern Somalia. The armed violence, which has raged for four and a half years, has crippled the economy and, according to the United Nations, displaced an estimated 1.4 million people. Then, in 2010, Somalia began to suffer its worst drought in 60 years, just as food and fuel prices spiked worldwide. The crisis fully erupted in July, when the worsening humanitarian crisis reached a tipping point and the UN announced famine conditions across parts of southern Somalia. Hundreds of thousands of Somalis in famine-stricken areas fled to the capital, Mogadishu, and Kenya in search of aid.
At first, the international community could do little to aid the victims of the famine. Most relief agencies had suspended operations in Somalia two years earlier, due to attacks on their aid workers by a variety of armed groups, including al Shabab. When the famine was announced in July, those agencies no longer possessed the networks and infrastructure necessary to operate in the country and distribute aid effectively. The organizations that remained had only a limited presence and could not boost their capacity on such short notice to deliver the amount of aid necessary to end the famine.
In addition, the United States -- which had been Somalia's main source of food aid -- suspended provision of food assistance in 2009 to avoid providing material benefit to al Shabab; since al Shabab controls southern Somalia, it stood to profit from U.S. resources flowing into the area. This move had a chilling effect on relief organizations, many of which feared prosecution under U.S. law for operating in places controlled by al Shabab.
Perhaps most critically, in 2009 al Shabab banned almost all international aid agencies, claiming that they were Western spies and that their food assistance was a conspiracy to drive Somali farmers out of business. The group not only prevented aid distribution but also forbade famine victims from fleeing to Kenya, even going so far as to deny the existence of a famine.
To break the gridlock, the Obama administration worked feverishly in early August to provide special waivers to aid agencies, providing at least some level of protection against prosecution. This partially removed one obstacle to food relief and shifted responsibility for blocking food aid squarely to al Shabab.
Shortly thereafter, operatives from al Shabab suddenly withdrew from Mogadishu, most of of which they had occupied since 2008. Al Shabab's retreat signaled its internal weakness in the wake of a sharp drop in public support over the past two years and pressure from the African Union peacekeeping force protecting Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG). The organization's fall from grace among Somalis was driven by many factors -- its practice of forced recruitment, its indifference to casualties suffered by the many child soldiers it employed, its extremist interpretation of Islamic law and links to al Qaeda, and above all, its blockage of food aid to famine victims.
The strain on al Shabab is likely to grow. Some of the organization's leaders operate in territory controlled by their own clans and face intense pressure from their people to allow food in. Tensions are strong between the most radical elements in the movement and these local commanders, who might defect from the movement to permit food aid. If this happens, key parts of southern Somalia may open up to aid agencies. Indeed, the key to ending the famine rests with these local al Shabab leaders, who are most likely to cooperate with aid agencies if allowed to do so discreetly. The United States and the UN should act accordingly, quietly working with dissident al Shabab leaders and protecting them from reprisal. The defection of al Shabab commanders would simultaneously strengthen humanitarian operations and weaken al Shabab.
To further undermine and perhaps vanquish al Shabab, Ethiopia and Kenya have considered sending in Somali militia units that they have trained and equipped. But the United States should be wary of military operations by its regional allies at this time. Foreign-inspired military operations in Somalia have a long history of triggering unintended consequences and, in this case, could rally Somalis behind al Shabab or encourage the organization to launch terrorist attacks outside Somali borders. If al Shabab remains intact and the famine worsens, however, the international community may face a painful choice between supporting armed humanitarian intervention and resigning itself to witnessing a major famine and offering aid only to those who manage to cross into Kenya.