(Apologies that I’ve been absent the past few days. Events in my immediate world have demanded more attention than events in east Africa…)
What a surprise. I guess there were Ethiopian troops in Somalia after all.
Ethiopia had strenuously insisted that it had not “invaded” Somalia, and that its presence to support the provisional government in Baidoa was “advisory”.
Evidently some of those advisors brought tanks and airplanes with them. You know how it is… I hate leaving home without my laptop and mobile phone. And now the nations are at war.
Until quite recently, the provisional government controlled little beyond the town of Baidoa. The rest of southern Somalia was controlled by the Union of Islamic Courts. UIC had brought more stability to Mogadishu than had been seen in a decade, and the international press was expressing surprise that the city could return to comparative normalcy so quickly.
But not everyone has been thrilled by the rise of the UIC – some US policymakers have expressed concern that some members of the UIC may have Al-Qaeda ties. And US ally Ethiopia has strenously objected to the rise of an Islamic power on its eastern border. Ethiopia further worried that the UIC would lay claim to the Ogaden, which the countries have warred over before. And Ethiopia worries that Eritrea may be backing UIC forces, fighting a proxy war on Ethiopia’s southeast flank to complement border tensions on their shared border.
On December 20th, the UIC began attacking Baidoa, the only city the transitional government held. And announcements were made inviting foreign fighters to join the fight in Somalia… an action that made the US nervous, and let the Ethiopian government portray the UIC as inciting terrorism within its borders. It’s not a surprise that Ethiopia has struck back.
What is a surprise, to me at least, is that Ethiopia has seized this opportunity to “crush” the UIC and to take Mogadishu. Since the UIC has small arms and “technicals” – Toyota pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back – and the Ethiopian army has invaded with jet fighters and tanks, it’s not a real surprise that some or all fighters would choose to take off their green skullcaps and melt into the crowd, rather than be killed by Ethiopian troops in a straightforward military engagement.
The report from the NY Times seems to suggest that the UIC has “dissolved” – UIC fighters abandoned their checkpoints and disappeared into the crowd. The authors suggest that this dissolution may be permanent – as UIC lost battles to the Ethiopian army, warlords who’d been part of UIC demanded their vehicles and fighters back, which may have fatally crippled the UIC.
I find this analysis very hard to believe. Any guerilla commander, facing an overwhelming invasion, would get out of the way of Ethiopian tanks and wait to see how troops tried to hold the city. If Ethiopian troops leave Mogadishu and let the provisional government – in alliance with their preferred warlords – try to hold the city, I would expect UIC forces to emerge again and engage with the warlords, perhaps routing them as they did before. If Ethiopia remains in Mogadishu to help the provisional government hold the city – perhaps trying to move their center of operations from Baidoa to Mogadishu – I would expect major diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia, which invaded without authorization or support from any transnational entity. The AU has already demanded that Ethiopia – as well as any other foreign fighters – withdraw from the country immediately.
Abdurahman of “No Longer at Ease” offers the additional concern that Puntland, allied with the transitional government, might become another front for fighting. There have already been skirmishes between UIC forces and forces from Puntland, supporting the transitional government/Ethiopian forces.
As Ethiopian forces marched toward Mogadishu, Zenawi and his ministers were taking to the airwaves to announce that villagers were now free to watch cinema and listen to pop music again. They were also free to resume their addiction to qat, which the UIC had banned – qat sellers opened their booths almost immediately. Some media reports are claiming that the Ethiopian troops are being met with “cheers and flowers.” (This is all sounding hauntingly familiar to me, for some reason…)
Other reports suggest that Mogadishu is back to normal – that is to say, pre-UIC normal, which means looting, robbery and armed men roaming the streets. Ali Said Omar, writing to the BBC from Mogadishu, says:
Looting has been going on. Some of those involved freelance militia that were kicked out by the Islamists, but some are just opportunists, grabbing as much money as they can. Last night many, many people were robbed.
Speaking to people I did pass it seems as if our city is full of tears, waiting to burst. Most seem very worried, some terrified, waiting to know what to do.
He goes on to mention something that probably isn’t intuitively obvious to my American readers: the US is seen as the driving force behind this invasion.
No-one is giving much consideration to the transitional government as they are only being guided by the Ethiopians who are in turn are guided by the Americans.
If the government brings the previous warlords back then life will revert to how it was – the warlords will kill everyone to gain revenge on the people for supporting the Islamic courts. The people will be punished.
Two warlords escaped with the help of the Americans when the Islamists took over. Since 9/11 everything has changed… America used to be a dream for us.
But here the Ethiopians are hated more. You see – this is Somalia not Ethiopia. You do not have a right to come to another country and destroy civilians and say you are doing it to protect your own country.
People are comparing Ethiopia’s action to what America has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ethiopia is saying that Somalis are a threat to our security.
People here are very angry with Ethiopia and then secondly with America.
Somalis aren’t the only ones who see a US hand in these events. German newspaper Die Tageszeitung writes:
Washington is supporting the transitional government to prevent an Islamist victory. But the USA is employing the wrong means. It is supporting warlords who are hated among the population and the Americans believe they can use Ethiopia as a proxy to avoid having to use their own troops. That is simply idiotic. Ethiopia is Somalia’s archenemy, partly because of a territorial conflict. If Ethiopian troops enter Somalia it will drive even moderate Islamists into the Islamists’ camp.
While there are certainly moments when US foreign policy is “simply idiotic”, it’s possible that someone in the US State department understands that an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia is unlikely to make many friends in Mogadishu. The Kampala Monitor reports that the US has been reaching out to Uganda to act as a peacekeeper in Somalia, perhaps forcing Ethiopia into a more secondary (and less inflamatory) role. That said, statements from the National Security Council are being read as support by the US government for the Ethiopian invasion. In both statements by the NSC and from the State Department, connections between the UIC and Al-Qaeda were invoked.
It’s getting hard to defend my country from charges of “Islamophobia as foreign policy”. A country that’s seen very little peace in the past 15 years has just been destabilized by the army of a traditional enemy, commanded by a man who’s proved willing to have troops fire on unarmed civilians. It’s very unlikely that the invading army can hold the territory without a wider invasion, in which a Christian nation would occupy and hold a Muslim nation. The result, in the short term, is likely to be looting, violence and warlordism in a country that’s already been destroyed by fifteen years of the same. The long term consequences? Regional war is one possibility. An increased sense that the US is willing to sacrifice stability for any nominal action against “global terror” – no matter how ineffective – is a near certainty.
David Bosco in Foreign Policy Passport, asks a question I skirted in this post: “Are US advisors helping the Ethiopians in Somalia?” It’s a damned good question. Certainly, there’s US presence in the horn of Africa, including carrier support in Djbouti. It would be far from shocking to discover that battlefield intel was conveyed to Ethiopia from US aircraft… though it would put the issues I tried to raise in this post into sharper focus. Would this be yet another example of the 1% doctrine?