Letter: Lessons for Northern Ireland in Somalia

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Sir: In estimating the duration of the American military presence in Somalia, we may be too ready to envisage an entrapment like Vietnam. In Vietnam, the Americans fought an orthodox war against a recognised enemy of full national status; and when the Vietnamese proved too powerful for them, the Americans negotiated for peace and went away. The whole procedure took them 10 or 12 years to complete.

So are we to expect a similar commitment to Somalia? I think not. The Somalian situation finds a closer precedent in Northern Ireland. British troops were sent there for good humanitarian reasons - on a temporary basis, of course - but unfortunately they have been compelled to fight an enemy whose military status and credentials we query, and with whom we have expressed our determination never to negotiate. Thus our troops, unavoidably, have been in Ulster for 23 years and may well be there for 30 more.

So is this the kind of prospect that faces the Americans in Somalia? No: the Ulster precedent is equally irrelevant. First, the American troops are authorised to cooperate politically with chosen specimens of the Somalian warlords, a pragmatic policy that has often been crowned with success in the past, a policy that unfortunately is unacceptable to us in Northern Ireland. Second, the Americans - properly and legally speaking - have as a nation no committed status binding them to Somalia. If they want out, all they need to do is withdraw their contingent from the interventionist expedition currently organised by the United Nations.

Might there not be something in this American idea of sending in a (genuinely) temporary peace- making force, to prepare the way for a follow-up peace-keeping force? The American troops moving into Somalia, 28,000 strong, form a close numerical counterpart to the security forces we have so long maintained in Northern Ireland. Where could we find a peace-keeping force to take over from us there?

It looks as though we may shortly come under pressure from President-elect Clinton on just this issue. We should welcome his advice, still more his participation.

Yours faithfully,


Hazelbank, Strathclyde

12 December