ALREADY NOTORIOUS as the world's only state without a functioning government, Somalia may be about to deteriorate even further. The country is rapidly sliding back toward war. As an Islamist militia, the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, consolidates control over large swathes of southern Somalia, neighboring Ethiopia has sent thousands of troops over the border, and both sides are preparing for a showdown. A return to war could bring about the same horrific famine conditions that precipitated a US military intervention 14 years ago, and damage rather than advance US counter terrorism objectives in a vulnerable region.
Unfortunately for Somalis, the United States and other members of the UN Security Council are taking actions that make war more likely, not less. The State Department wants to loosen a UN arms embargo and allow deployment of a regional peacekeeping force, a move that will be viewed as an act of war by the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, or CSIC. The Bush administration must resist the urge to tackle political problems with military solutions, roll up its diplomatic sleeves, and engage in a multilateral effort to negotiate an agreement between the Ethiopian-backed Somali transitional government and the Council of Somali Islamic Courts, the de facto authority in much of southern Somalia.
And just to prove my point, my post "Somalia on the brink of war" is dated July 19. So hostilities have been simmering over there for a few months, but while my silence on the issue might imply that nothing's been happening and that recent fighting suddenly broke out, that's not quite the truth. Somalia, of course, doesn't tend to make it into the headlines unless somebody writes "Al Qaeda" in the article (which may be why that phrase shows up so much) but there have been a few things written about it by those papers that are worth a damn.
To continue with the Boston Globe, this passage is prescient:
As battle looms, the hyenas are closing in. A UN investigation presented to the Security Council this month suggested that no fewer than nine outside actors -- including Ethiopia and its enemy Eritrea -- are funneling weapons to either the transitional government or the militia. By doing so, they are breaking the 14-year UN arms embargo and priming the country for war.
While many Somalis don't want their personal freedoms restricted and reject the Islamist extremism preached by the militia, they are even more opposed to foreign intervention. The militia has painted its jihad in nationalist colors, and this has led to an outpouring of popular support.
UN investigators recommended strengthening the arms embargo and freezing the assets of all Somali-owned and operated businesses linked to arms trade. It also warned that the entire region could explode into conflict unless the international community makes diplomatic efforts to contain the spillover.
Rather than heed this advice, the United States is pushing for just the opposite by tabling a resolution in the UN Security Council to partially lift the arms embargo to allow a regional peacekeeping mission to protect the government in Baidoa. In effect, this would bring the UN into the coming conflict on the side of Ethiopia and give a green light to Ethiopia's deployment in Somalia.
Why would the US engage in such a dangerous form of diplomacy? Mainly because we have people in the administration who seem to believe that SICC=Al-Qaeda. This is, at best, a major mistake, but mostly the fantasy of an administration that wants to prove its point that we are engaged in a global war with the forces of TERROR (<-accompanied by spooky sound effects). Here are some of the things that have been said to this effect (from Wikipedia; click link to go see sources):
On November 26, 2006, the US Embassy in Kenya issued a travel alert to US citizens regarding travel to Kenya or Ethiopia after letters allegedly written by the Somalian leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, encouraged suicide terrorist attacks on US citizens in those two countries.
On November 30, 2006, the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) claimed three suicide bombs which cost eight lives were the work of al Qaeda operatives working in the country.
On December 14, 2006, the US Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer warned al Qaeda cell operatives were controlling the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), the Islamist faction of Somalia rapidly taking control of the southern area of the country.
A direct quote from Jendayi Frazer (via Washington Post):
"The Council of Islamic Courts is now controlled by . . . East Africa al-Qaeda cell individuals"
Is this true? Not necessarily, according to another person you might call an expert, John Negroponte.
Still, the intelligence community is not prepared to fully endorse Frazer's conclusions about the level of al-Qaeda's control of the Courts. "I don't think there are hard and fast views," John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, told Washington Post editors and reporters Thursday. Somalia "has come back on the radar screen only fairly recently," and the question is whether the Islamist government "is the next Taliban," he said. "I don't think I've seen a good answer."
A scholar who is more familiar with Somalia than either of them says no. Ken Menkhaus, a scholar of Somalia who has plenty of real life experience with it as well, says this is completely untrue in an interview with Foreign Policy.
FP: Are the Courts controlled by al Qaeda?
KM: No. Absolutely not. There is a legitimate debate over whether a small number of leaders in the Islamic Courts have linkages with a small number of leaders from al Qaeda. That’s not the same as saying that the two are in a deeply intrinsic partnership. The problem that the Courts face is that they are not by any stretch a unified movement. It’s an umbrella group that includes moderates, hard-line salafists, and jihadists. And a small number of jihadists can do an enormous amount of damage and can bring in elements from outside that create a whole new level of security problems.
Such a nuanced answer seems to escape those with an agenda, that agenda being "Support Bush and believe all kinds of BS no matter how pie-in-the-sky it is". Yeah, there may be some links. That's a far cry from saying that this government is going to be a new Taliban, or that Somalia would be a new Afghanistan, freely offering bases to Al-Qaeda. Of course, that's exactly what Frazer would have you believe. It's ironic then, that she said this:
"I think this town wants to villainize someone for a hard problem," Frazer said in an interview. "So you're looking for the failure of something . . . a policy, an individual, U.S. interests. I think that's so unsophisticated, because what we have is a major challenge with not a lot of leverage at this moment in time. . . . Instead of recognizing the complexity of the situation, there is the tendency to say, 'Well, they're just wrong.' Some of that is frustration. Some of that is politics. And some of that is straight ignorance of the facts themselves."
That level of stupidity is pretty amazing. To get back to the point, because of this view from within our administration, we've failed to do what we could to keep hostilities from breaking out. That would have been telling Ethiopia that we do not support them sending armed forces into Somalia. The Bush administration did just the opposite.
As of Monday December 25th, Ethiopian war planes attacked the airport in Mogadishu. If you recall my earlier writings, this is likely because these airports were being used as supply lines from Eritrea to the SICC military. This marks the official entrance of Ethiopia into the war between the TFG and the SICC, although small-scale fighting has been taking place for weeks between the TFG's forces around Baidoa and the surrounding SICC forces. The campaign has gone swiftly, which is to be expected, given Ethiopia's vastly superior force.
From Tuesday's WaPo:
Ethiopian warplanes attacked the airport in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on Monday in another major escalation of fighting between the Ethiopian-backed Somali government and the Islamic Courts movement that in recent months has taken over much of the country.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian officials said on state-run television Monday that they would continue the assault against the Islamic movement and vowed to push toward Mogadishu, clearing the Islamic fighters out of every town they control over the next five days. By Monday night, Ethiopian forces, which are vastly superior to the Islamic movement in conventional military terms, had secured the strategically important town of Beledweyne, which is near the Ethiopian border and along a main road to Mogadishu. The Associated Press reported that Ethiopian and government forces had also captured three villages in a push toward Jowhar, about 60 miles north of Mogadishu.
AP also reported that airstrikes hit a second airport, Baledogle Airport, outside Mogadishu.
Why the attacks all of a sudden? The article answers that question too:
Negotiations between Somalia's weak but internationally recognized interim government and the Islamic movement have fallen apart in recent months as the Islamic group has become stronger and advanced its control. The current conflict began even as the two sides had signed an agreement to de-escalate fighting and resume talks.
Analysts believe that Ethiopia's offensive is intended to force the movement back into negotiations by changing the situation on the ground.
As of today, Thursday the 28th, Ethiopian forces have taken the "capital" of Somalia (not that there's been a functioning government there since 15 years ago). The SICC military withdrew from the city without a fight.
Somali government troops rolled into Mogadishu unopposed Thursday, the prime minister said, hours after an Islamic movement that tried to establish a government based on the Quran abandoned the capital.
"We are in Mogadishu," Prime Minister Mohamed Ali Gedi said after meeting with local clan leaders to discuss the handover of the city. "We are coordinating our forces to take control of Mogadishu."
As it stands right now, the majority of fighting between the two forces has ceased. That does not mean, however, that the fighting is over. The Washington Post has already addressed this question.
But some analysts have expressed fear that Ethiopia's military calculation is seriously flawed, and that even if its superior military initially routs the Islamic movement, the ideologically driven militias will become only more motivated to pursue a guerrilla-style war or terrorist attacks across the region.
Ethiopia, which has fought two wars with Somalia in the past 45 years, is perceived as a historically Christian nation, though Muslims now make up nearly half its population.
"Hasn't anyone heard of Iraq?" said John Prendergast, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group in Washington. "A military strategy of 'countering terrorism' never works and will likely blow up in their faces."
And back to Ken Menkhous:
FOREIGN POLICY: How likely is an all-out war in Somalia, and how long could such a conflict last?
Ken Menkhous: The situation is extremely serious. The two sides have been sparring over the last few weeks. This morning, there were clashes between the two sides outside the provisional capital, Baidoa. The Council of Islamic Courts on the one side, and Ethiopia and the transitional federal government on the other, have been preparing for war, building up arms and logistical supplies. At this point, we can expect probably a protracted, inconclusive armed conflict in southern and central Somalia. This could go on for a long time. Neither the Ethiopians nor the Islamists has the ability to deliver a knockout punch. The only way this armed conflict will be short is if each side is trying to send a signal to the other. In other words, they bloody each other’s noses, then step back and assess the very high risks to both sides, and someone steps in to mediate. Barring that, the most likely scenario is protracted conflict that could spread to parts of Ethiopia and Kenya.
Are there indications that the SICC is preparing for long-term guerilla warfare? Judge for yourself:
At a news conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said that he had no plans to push into Mogadishu but that the campaign was only half-completed. The only option now, he added, was to win.
He said that he was pleased at how swiftly the campaign had gone and that 3,000 to 4,000 Ethiopian troops had "broken the back" of the Islamic Courts movement, which he has repeatedly accused of supporting secessionist groups in Ethiopia.
As Ethiopian troops pushed ahead, however, the Islamic Courts militias appeared to withdraw almost simultaneously from their front line positions, suggesting a coordinated strategy rather than a chaotic retreat, analysts said.
It was unclear where the Islamic fighters went. Some were spotted with their battle gear around Mogadishu; analysts said it was likely that most headed into the bush to prepare for a war on their own terms.
"The Islamic Courts know they can't confront Ethiopian tanks and airplanes" with ground troops and trucks mounted with machine guns, Shinn said. "I think they'd love to suck Ethiopia deep into Somalia and then slowly try to pick them off as they get bogged down."
Could this be their plan? Well, we know from Iraq that it works. The Somalis aren't stupid and they have tv too. Remember too that they definitely have the backing of Eritrea, feeding them guns and ammo and who knows what. Ethiopia won't find it easy to pacify the country as long as those guys are out there willing to fight on and on.
In Mogadishu, businesses shut down and thousands of enraged Somalis loyal to the Islamic movement rallied in the streets, once again proclaiming holy war against Ethiopia, a bitter enemy that is widely perceived to be supported by the U.S. government. Witnesses said young Somali men who have grown up in a country awash with AK-47 assault rifles continued to pour into recruiting centers to sign up to fight.
You could say they're willing.
You could say all of this doesn't matter. If it was simply that Ethiopia was stomping on Somalia, that would probably be true. But not only is Somalia being used as a proxy war for Ethiopia and Eritrea, there are major international interests at stake here. According to the UN, 10 different nations are supplying arms illegally to either side of the fighting. And some nations are supplying more than weapons:
People living along Somalia's coast have reported seeing hundreds of foreign Muslims entering the country in answer to calls from the Islamic militia to fight a holy war against Ethiopia.
Back to WaPo:
...Witnesses said fighters from Eritrea...as well as Pakistan were among those fighting alongside the Islamic militias.
The implications of this are that it is viewed as a Muslim war, but it is definitely also seen as a political war on both sides.
Events in Somalia could provide an immediate spark for a wider war in the Horn of Africa; the roots of such a conflict would be tangled in complicated, long-standing regional animosities. The United Nations reported last month that Ethiopia has sent thousands of troops to help prop up the two-year-old transitional government in Baidoa. The same report said Eritrea, whose 1970s war with Ethiopia is still smoldering over an unsettled border dispute, has deployed thousands of troops to train and fight alongside the Islamists. Arab neighbors and sympathizers are also reportedly providing funds.
Ethiopia, a Christian-dominated nation, also fought a war with Somalia in the 1970s, over the ethnic Somali and largely Muslim Ethiopian province of Ogaden.
This is supported by Menkhous' analysis:
FP: How is involvement by Eritrea and Ethiopia feeding the conflict?
KM: Somalia has become a proxy war in the region. Eritrea is using the Islamic Courts to try to bog Ethiopia down in a quagmire. They have provided arms and training to the Courts. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is involved in Somalia and has troops there, in large part because it views the rise of the Courts as a very dangerous security threat on a number of levels. One is the prospect of having a radical Islamist movement controlling Somalia. Ethiopia is country which splits roughly 50-50 between Muslims and Christians and doesn’t want a radical Islamist movement on its borders. More immediately, the Courts have made claims to Somali-inhabited territory in eastern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. This is unacceptable to Ethiopia. As long as the Courts are making these claims, Ethiopia will view their ascendance to power as a security threat.
Menkhous also talks about the human cost.
FP: How serious of a humanitarian crisis would ensue if war broke out, something along the scale of Darfur?
KM: There’s already a very serious humanitarian crisis in Somalia and parts of Ethiopia and Kenya due to the heavy flooding that has occurred there. In Somalia alone, there are 500,000 people displaced due to the flooding. The humanitarian agencies are facing the perfect storm right now in southern Somalia—impassable roads due to the flooding, armed conflict breaking out between Somalia and Ethiopia which will ground U.N. helicopters once the war starts, and the unspecified threat of jihadist violence directed at any United Nations, Western, or American agency, emanating from Mogadishu. It’s different from Darfur, but the scale is very large. Darfur is a manmade crisis, and it’s an ongoing one that is incredibly difficult to access. In Somalia, for the moment, the biggest crisis is a natural disaster, the flooding. The problem is that access to those in need is complicated by the imminent threat of war, in which humanitarian workers could become the principal targets for small groups of jihadists. So the immediate threat to the 500,000 people who’ve been displaced by the flooding is very serious.
Back to WaPo:
Thousands of Somalis who had fled war and drought earlier this year and epic flooding in recent weeks once again abandoned villages, leaving behind fields and livestock at harvest time, aid workers said. Droves of villagers trudged down muddy roads toward refugee camps just across the Kenyan border. The camps are already full of Somalis displaced by years of fighting and natural disasters.
"These families are really pushed into the extreme limits," Pedram Yazdi, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said from Nairobi, adding that Red Cross-supported medical facilities had received more than 440 wounded and that the total "is rising every hour." Aid workers believe the number of dead is in the hundreds.
Mogadishu appears to have fallen back into its old habits:
As the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) withdrew its fighters, Somalia's clan militias began reasserting their presence - raising fears of a return to the clan warfare which racked the city for years before the Islamists brought a measure of security.
The BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan, in the city, says clan militiamen seized key buildings - like the airport and old presidential palace.
Residents in the north of the city have reported cars and mobile phones being stolen. Rising insecurity has forced most businesses to stop trading, our correspondent says.
Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency said at least 17 people had died and 140 were missing after boats carrying those fleeing Somalia for Yemen capsized in the Gulf of Aden.
Evidently the friendly Yemenis shot some of the boats (and people).
It's a bad situation and it's probably going to get worse. Fighting seems to have hit a pause at the moment. And that's it for this update; TWM will get back to you with more news and analysis later.