Understanding Somalia always requires some triangulation. Recent events are more than a little baffling, at least at first glance. At second glance, they make a bit more sense, but seem to indicate even more miserable times again for the people in the south of that unhappy country.
– Somalia hasn’t had a central government since 1991. The northern part of the country has declared independence as Somaliland; the central and southern sections have been wracked by violence, much of it between clans.
– The country is “run” by a transitional government led by Abullahi Yusuf Ahmed, which has UN backing, but almost no power on the ground. Until very recently, the vast majority of “government” members lived and worked in Kenya
– In 2006, Somalia looked to be heading in a more peaceful direction, under the leadership of a group called The Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). Markets reopened, violence slowed, and a semblance of normalcy returned. But Ethiopia, the US and others worried that the UIC were harboring Al Qaeda, anti-Ethiopian forces, or both.
– With US intelligence backing, Ethiopia invaded Somalia in late 2006, installing and supporting the transitional federal government (TFG).
– UIC forces quickly melted away. But more extreme groups from within the UIC emerged and began battling the TFG. One of the most extreme – al Shabab (“the youth”) – now controls large parts of the country and is engaged in daily attacks with the TFG and Ethiopian forces.
The central irony of the story thus far is that, near as most outside observers can tell, the UIC weren’t bad guys for the most part. While the Ethiopians and Americans were able to chase them out – at least temporarily – what’s now emerged is an Islamist movement that’s more serious, more extreme, more likely to be aligned with Al Qaeda. If we accept the idea that Somalia was the US’s third front in the “war on terror”, it’s been the least succesful of the fronts, achieving even less than efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So here’s the latest confusing and contradictory news:
The Ethiopians are leaving. On the one hand, that’s not a bad thing – they never should have been there in the first place. Somalia and Ethiopia have fought two wars, prior to this one – Christian Ethiopian troops were never going to be seen in Mogadishu as anything but occupiers. Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s dicatorial prime minister, gave his version of a “mission accomplished” speech, but at least acknowledged that “it has been impossible to crush the Islamist extremist al-Shabab forces and establish a stable government in the two years since he dispatched troops to neighboring Somalia. But he said that was not Ethiopia’s objective.”
What was the objective? “to defuse the plan orchestrated by Eritrea, accompanied by al-Shabab, and anti-peace elements in Ethiopia… We have defused it in a way that it cannot come again. That is, if we feel there are signs it is coming back again, we can take action.”
Let’s translate from Zenawi into English for those who aren’t fluent. Ethiopia’s primary military concern is Eritrea, with which its fought a bloody and pointless border war after Eritrea declared independence. Zenawi was worried that Eritrea would back the UIC – which was sweeping across the country in 2006 – in seeking a “greater Somalia“, including majority-Somali areas of Ethiopia like the Ogaden. (Eritrea’s interests – if those were in fact Eritrea’s interests – would have more to do with tweaking Ethiopia than in seeking greater Somalia.) The UIC is no longer in power, and perhaps Zenawi believes that al Shabab’s ambitions don’t extend beyond Somalia’s current borders. Or perhaps Ethiopia’s military is badly stretched and the forces deployed in Ethiopia are needed to maintain order domestically – the New York Times reported a year ago that teachers and civil servants were being forced onto the front lines in the Ogaden to fight rebels there.
As for the clause about taking action: Despite the fact that Ethiopian troops are slated to pull out of Somalia, right now they appear to be pouring in. The TFG claims that the troops are “helping the Somali people and they will get rid of al-Shabab.” That seems unlikely, since TFG controls almost no territory at this point – perhaps this is a last stand, an attempt to keep al-Shabab away from the Ethiopian border? Or a shift in policy, recognizing that leaving al-Shabab unchecked will mean needing to defend the border sooner rather than later? Or a reaction to the fact that TFG forces are deserting at an unprecedented rate, some taking their weapons and joining militias?
Ethiopia has stated a hope that the UN will take over from Ethiopia to keep TFG in power. That’s not going to happen. The UN’s totally overstretched in the region with major peacekeeping efforts in eastern DRC and in Darfur. Indeed, the Ugandans – who’ve been tripping over themselves to be as pro-US as the Ethiopians – are pulling out as well. The Burundians won’t be far behind, whatever the AU says. If the Ethiopians continue their pullout – and who knows if the influx of troops is temporary or long term – TFG will lose all control within weeks and the southern part of the country will be under al-Shabab control.
In other words, two years after ousting a moderate Muslim (admittedly unelected) government that had made great strides in achieving security, we’ve now guaranteed control of Somalia by an extreme, intolerant, Al-Qaeda aligned group that’s responsible for stoning rape victims to death. Oh, and half a million civilians have been forced to flee Mogadishu, leading to a major humanitarian crisis. And piracy has grown so brazen in Puntland that even newspaper readers who don’t dig for African news have heard about it.
I offer this as context for a story on Wired today about the possibility of a “US land invasion” in Somalia to prevent piracy. That strikes me as extremely unlikely. Could US special forces land in Eyl, blow up some speedboats and damage pirate assets. Sure. Will it do anything in the long term? No. Another coastal town will end up as the center of piracy. It’s too profitable, there are too many weapons in the region and too little else for pirates to do, in absence of other economic opportunities. And the US has no interest in invading and controlling Somalia ala Iraq or Afghanistan… and there’s no indication that a concerted effort to control Somalia would be any more successful in the long run than attempting to hold Afghanistan.
So what’s going to happen? My money’s on al-Shabab controlling Mogadishu within weeks, and moving to stabilize the country under Sharia law. This is likely to be less pleasant than the control the UIC imposed, but will likely have the effect of reducing piracy and, perhaps, allowing commerce to resume. In the medium term, it’s likely to threaten Ethiopia and perhaps Kenya in a serious way, and to provide safe haven for Islamic extremists. And in the long term, it’s likely to become a major security issue for the Obama administration, possibly rising to the level where it’s discussed by folks other than Africa policy wonks.
A wild card in all this? Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, the chairman of the Alliance for the Re-liberating of Somalia, one of the more moderate leaders of the UIC, has returned to the country from Djbouti. Sheik Sharif is returning at the invitation of the TFG. This sounds like a somewhat desperate attempt by TFG to find some allies against al-Shabab. I don’t know the situation on the ground well enough to know whether Sheik Sharif is likely to be able to muster forces to support the TFG.
Background on the situation in Somalia from previous of my blogposts.