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Another attack on UN personnel

That it occurred in Somalia, which has seen far too many deaths of UN workers, should come as no surprise. But this time, the UN fought back.

Suspected Islamist insurgents stormed a United Nations compound overnight in southern Somalia, witnesses said on Monday, but UN guards fought back and killed three of the attackers in a gun battle.

One UN official in Wajid, 70km northwest of Baidoa, said about 10 heavily armed men attacked them overnight. The compound is used for storing humanitarian aid.

"After several minutes shooting our security guards repulsed the attackers and killed three of them," the UN official told Reuters.

While it was very fortunate that no UN personnel were killed (one guard was injured), it must be said that this success should not be taken as a policy blueprint. UN guards are not meant to defend against bands of militants, and it's only a matter of time until an incident like this goes much, much worse.

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In case you thought things in Somalia (still) couldn’t get any worse…

...the International Crisis Group warns that something is rotten in the state semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

If its government does not enact meaningful reforms and reach out to all clans, Puntland may break up violently, adding to the chaos in Somalia.

Somalia: The Trouble with Puntland, the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, warns about the rise in insecurity and political tension that the semi-autonomous north-eastern region has been experiencing for three years. At its roots are poor governance and a collapse of the cohesion, particularly within the Harti clan, that led to its creation a decade ago.

"Most of the blame rests squarely with the political leadership", says Daniela Kroslak, Deputy Director of Crisis Group’s Africa Program. "If a wide variety of grievances are not urgently tackled in a comprehensive manner, the consequences could be severe for the whole country and even for the Horn of Africa".

Puntland is most widely known as the onshore haven to many of Somalia's pirates. Piracy, though, the report argues, is "only a dramatic symptom" of Puntland's problems, and I'd add that the instability in Puntland itself is only a "symptom" of the greater chaos in Somalia writ large.

Puntland is probably wishing that it had some of the good reputation of Somalia's more successful semi-autonomous region, Somaliland, which some commentators have argued could provide a model of how to organize the country as a whole.

(image from Wikimedia Commons)

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We (Twitter users) are all Georgians now

The massive Twitter and Facebook outages yesterday seem to be linked in some way to the Georgian conflict. As CNET reported, the rolling blackout of Twitter began with a DDOS attack on a Georgian blogger's Twitter and Facebook accounts.  A Facebook spokesperson says, "The people who are coordinating this attack, the criminals, are definitely determined and using a lot of resources."

To be sure, there is a big difference in the victimhood of the women in this video and those of us slightly inconvenienced yesterday.  Still, it's fightening to see how instability and an unresolved conflict halfway around the world can impact my daily life in a pretty direct way. To the extent that DDOS attacks become a common feature of global conflict, those of us who think we have nothing to do with a conflict one way or the other may increasingly find ourselves smack in the middle of it. 

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A UN army is not forthcoming in Somalia either…

In his Financial Times column today, Gideon Rachman makes the argument for a "United Nations army." His test case, interestingly, is Somalia, where offshore piracy has galvanized international cooperation, but 18 years of onshore violence and instability has rumbled on unchecked. Would it be easier, or any more advisable, to send UN peackeepers to Somalia if there were, as Rachman proposes, "a proper UN force on permanent stand-by?"

Maybe, but many of the same problems with deploying UN personnel in Somalia would still apply: militants would be all too eager to turn their violence onto UN blue helmets, the presence of foreigners could inspire radical nationalist sentiment, and the ensuing deaths and difficulty would only make countries more skeptical of contributing their troops to UN peacekeeping.

And herein lies a problem that Rachman does not consider. In his view, the chief obstacle to creating a "UN army" is a general wariness, primarily on the part of conservatives, to cede such power to an internationalist institution. He cites the proverbial UN "black helicopters" synonymous with world government and counters conservative skepticism by quoting the Gipper himself:

Even perfectly sane American conservatives regard the idea of a permanent UN force with horror. They might be surprised and enlightened to learn that the hero of the conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, once spoke approvingly of the idea of “a standing UN force – an army of conscience – that is fully equipped and prepared to carve out human sanctuaries through force”. And, of course, to take on the Martians, whenever they finally invade.

But a problem possibly even greater to overcome than (conservative) discomfort with the idea is the reluctance of UN member states to contribute troops. The mission in Darfur has been short on personnel for over a year and a half, and its counterpart in DR Congo can't even muster a requested addition of 3,000 troops. However one conceives of this "UN army," the soldiers would have to come from somewhere, and countries that don't contribute troops now (ahem, the United States) wouldn't be likely to sign on to a permanent deal.

Rachman's Martian example -- that fighting an alien invasion is a perfect example of when a global UN force would be appreciated -- is also revealing. For as I've argued before, UN peacekeepers are not invasion-repellers. They are peacekeepers. So I'd hope that the powers that be on Earth would be smart enough to only deploy them after a peace has been reached with these hypothetical invading Martians.

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Another reason not to go to Somalia…

...on a bicycle, that is. And presumably this was not some sort of undercover agent posing as a cyclist.

In other pirate-related news, the end of the monsoon season could result in an increase in size and scope of attacks in the Gulf of Aden.

And while the UN's head in Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, takes to the Washington Post op-ed page to plea for international support for the embattled Somali government, its opposition, the radical al-Shabab militant group, plays the opposite message, "expelling" three UN agencies from Somalia.  I'm all for greater international engagement, but this is exactly why we cannot have the UN caught in the middle.