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Originally published Thursday, September 15, 2011 at 10:05 PM

In Somalia, thugs stand in way of aid

A drought-induced famine is creeping across Somalia, tens of thousands have died and a blockade of aid by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab. But, "There's no mood for intervention," said one U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. "People remember what happened in the 1990s. 'It doesn't work' was the conclusion."

The New York Times

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DOLO, Somalia — U.N. warnings could not be clearer: A drought-induced famine is creeping across Somalia, tens of thousands have died, and a blockade of aid by the Islamist militant group al-Shabab means hundreds of thousands of people could run out of food in the next few months.

The rains soon will pound down, but disease will bloom before crops. Malaria, cholera, typhoid and measles will sweep through immune-suppressed populations, aid agencies say, killing countless malnourished people.

There is a déjà vu quality to all this. In the early 1990s, Somalia was hit by famine, precipitated by similarly callous thugs blocking food aid and producing similarly appalling images of skeletal children dying in the sand. That famine was in the same area of Somalia, the lower third, home to powerless minority clans that often bear the brunt of this country's chronic troubles.

But the world was more willing to intervene in the 1990s. The United Nations rallied behind more than 25,000 U.S. troops who beat back the gunmen long enough to get food into the mouths of starving people.

Contrast that with what happened last week at a famine summit meeting in Kenya. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi proposed to forcefully establish humanitarian corridors, so food could be delivered to al-Shabab-controlled areas. Few in the West were enthused.

"There's no mood for intervention," said one U.S. official who was not authorized to speak publicly. "People remember what happened in the 1990s. 'It doesn't work' was the conclusion."

Somalia's politicians have been too busy squabbling to build institutions such as a functioning health ministry or a sanitation department. Some of the informal clusters of people camped out for aid are breaking up, and it is not clear where they are trudging. Many aid agencies — and Western militaries — are wary of this environment.

"I don't think that there's a case to be made that the famine can be mitigated through military intervention," said Bronwyn Bruton, a democracy and governance expert who in a provocative essay published by the Council on Foreign Relations urged the West to leave Somalia.

The African Union, which has 9,000 peacekeepers in Mogadishu, "isn't able to safeguard the delivery of aid in Mogadishu," Bruton said. "How could they possibly extend their reach outside the capital?"

"Theft, corruption and violence are endemic," she added. "The problem extends past al-Shabab to anybody with a gun."

In Somalia, there are many. This was the problem in the 1990s. The United Nations urged U.S. forces to disarm the warlords and their flip-flop-clad militias, but the Pentagon did not want to risk many American lives.

Instead, the United States opted for a narrowly scoped intervention and then hastily withdrew after 18 servicemen were killed in an epic street battle immortalized in the "Black Hawk Down" book and movie.

The U.S.-led operation and the attendant relief effort saved around 110,000 lives, while 240,000 were lost in the famine, according to a study by the Refugee Policy Group.

Analysts are bracing for possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths this time.

"We've lost this round," said Ken Menkhaus, a political-science professor at Davidson College in North Carolina. "We're too late."

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