To try to stop khat coming into the country would turn Somalis against the Americans at a stroke, but it might also give the Somalis something this nation sorely lacks: an issue they could all agree on.
Khat is central to Somali culture. A poor Somali man may spend as much as dollars 10 (pounds 6) on khat and only dollars 1 a day on food for himself and his family. The leaves and twigs of the plant contain a mild amphetamine. Masticated slowly they induce wakefulness and a belief that you are thinking the most intelligent thoughts and talking perfect sense. Although some journalists have suggested that khat explains the violence of the people who have torn Somalia to pieces, all Somalis I have spoken to say that khat does not induce any personality change and never aggression. Absence of khat may be a different matter, and one aspect of Somalia's complex civil wars is the battle for the control of the khat trade.
But nothing has stopped it. It is grown in Kenya and Somalia, and it is big business. More than nine tons are estimated to be flown fresh to Somalia every day in light aircraft from Nairobi. Profits run to millions of pounds. The Somali warlords, who have happily cut off food and water from civilians in each others' areas, have never shot down the khat flights. The Somalis' idea of a good night out is to meet in the house of a friend, lie on cushions and floor sofas, drink tea, chew khat and solve the problems of the world. It is as important to Somali society as the pub is to England on a Saturday night. Women chew privately - it is supposed to be a male activity.
To the Americans however khat is 'drugs' and they will have none of it. Washington is in Crusader mode here, and will not permit what it sees as drug trafficking.
Their arrival and their control of Somali airspace from a patrolling Awac has interrupted supplies and, according to Colonel Fred Peck of the Marines, may halt them altogether. There was little to be had in Mogadishu on Wednesday night, and yesterday only a little arrived and it was late. The price reached record levels.
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