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Somalia: Back to Perpetual War

10 March 2007

Somalia: Back to Perpetual War

By Gwynne Dyer

Through sixteen years of violent anarchy, most of Mogadishu’s population stayed put, but in the past few weeks tens of thousands have fled. Since Ethiopian troops installed the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in the city in late December, the Somali capital’s brief interval of peace and security has given way to renewed fighting, with the Ethiopian invaders replying to mortar attacks on their bases with indiscriminate artillery fire in the middle of the city.

Almost all Somalis see Ethiopia as their country’s main enemy, and behind the Ethiopians they see the United States. So when the Union of Islamic Courts that restored peace to the ruined city last June was forced to flee in late December, and US aircraft attacked retreating UIC fighters (targeting suspected al-Qaeda members, they claimed), resistance was inevitable.

The attacks on the Ethiopians by various Somali factions, some linked to the Islamic Courts and some to local warlords who returned to the city after the UIC was chased out, have grown so frequent that most of the TFG’s members have withdrawn from Mogadishu back to Baidoa, their former “provisional capital.” The plan was to replace Ethiopian troops with a multi-national African Union force as soon as possible, but the first Ugandan soldiers to arrive in Mogadishu on 6 March immediately came under fire as well.

Like his father before him, President George W. Bush has authorised a military intervention in Somalia, and once again it will end in tears. But there are two differences this time: the younger Bush is committing no American troops, and there are none of the genuinely humanitarian intentions that motivated the 1992 intervention. It’s just a question of making sure that “our guy” runs Somalia.

“Our guy,” in this case, is Abdullahi Yusuf, one of the many warlords to rise out of the chaos that has been Somalia for the past sixteen years. He has long been close to the Ethiopians, the only US ally in the Horn of Africa, and in 2004 he was chosen as president of the TFG by a Somali “parliament” meeting in Kenya and composed mainly of other warlords or their representatives.

While Washington approved of the choice, at that point it did not put much effort into helping Abdullahi Yusuf take control of Somalia. That all changed after June, 2006, when a US-backed operation by two warlords in Mogadishu, intended to capture three men suspected of planning the attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998, went badly wrong. The men were not captured — and the incident triggered a non-violent popular uprising that chased all the warlords and their troops from the city.

The organising force behind the popular uprising was the Union of Islamic Courts. Funded by local merchants in the hope that they could reduce the constant robberies and kidnaps that made it almost impossible to do business, the Islamic Courts quickly grew into a mass movement that embodied the longing of ordinary Somalis for an end to the violence. The peace they brought to Mogadishu soon spread over most of southern Somalia.

It was Somalis settling their own problems — just what all the foreigners had been urging them to do for so long — but unfortunately they had come up with the wrong answer: the courts were “Islamic”, and they wanted to enforce Sharia law. How else you might persuade Somalis to rise above their divisive clan loyalties, apart for appealing to their shared religious values, was not explained, but this solution was clearly unacceptable to the United States.

As an amorphous popular movement, the UIC had no control over its more loud-mouthed supporters, some of whom prattled freely about unifying all Somali-inhabited areas (which would mean invading Djibouti, northern Kenya, and much of eastern Ethiopia). Some very stupid UIC members even insisted on sheltering the three (non-Somali) men whom the United States wanted in connection with the 1998 embassy attacks. But the UIC was not a “terrorist organisation,” and it gave southern Somalia six months of peace.

That’s over now. Since the Ethiopians took Mogadishu, the violence has returned worse than ever, with warlords fighting each other to re-establish their turf and everybody having a crack at the hated Ethiopians — who respond with artillery fire. The peace is a memory, and the notion that a few thousand African Union peacekeepers are going to recreate it is a fantasy. (Besides, half of the promised 8,000 AU troops have yet to be volunteered.)

If Abdullahi Yusuf could bring peace to Somalia, with or without the collaboration of his fellow warlords, it would be a lot better than the chaos that prevailed a year ago. But it is very unlikely that he can do that whether the Ethiopian troops go home or not — and it is quite likely that they will go home soon, precisely because that would maximise the chaos. Ethiopia doesn’t want to occupy Somalia permanently; it just wants to cripple it.

The Islamic Courts will go on fighting the Ethiopians, Abdullahi Yusuf, and the other warlords, but they risk becoming just one more contender in the unending, multi-sided battle for control of Somalia. They were the country’s best chance for an end to the killing, but their moment has probably passed.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“As an…volunteered”)

A New War in Africa

28 December 2006

A New War in Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

“The Ethiopians now are advancing, but that is not the end,” Omar Idris, a senior official of Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), told the BBC on Wednesday. “We know what happened in Iraq, the experience of the Americans… I think this is very, very early to say that the Islamic Court forces were defeated.” The war is starting in Somalia, but it may end up being fought in Ethiopia and Eritrea, too. Together, the three countries contain almost a hundred million of the poorest people on the planet.

On Thursday, the Ethiopian army took Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, and the UIC, the closest thing to a government that Somalia has had since the country collapsed into anarchy fifteen years ago, retreated south towards the border with Kenya. Ethiopia has tanks, jet fighters and the tacit support of the United States; the UIC has only light weapons and the support of Somalis who distrust Ethiopians (i.e. almost all of them). So the UIC will probably win in the end, but it will take a long guerilla war.

This is a war founded on a misconception and driven by paranoid fantasies. The misconception was the US government’s belief that the Islamic Courts, local religious authorities backed by merchants in Mogadishu who wanted someone to curb the warlords, punish thieves, and enforce contracts, were just a cover for al-Qaeda. So the US instead backed the warlords who were making Somalis’ lives a misery.

American support is the kiss of death in Somalia, so the warlords were finally dislodged in Mogadishu last June by an uprising led by the UIC and supported by most of the population. The warlords fled to an American ship offshore, their clansmen went to ground, and the UIC rapidly took control of most of southern Somalia, bringing order for the first time since 1991. But the US immediately started plotting its overthrow.

Washington’s principal instrument in this enterprise was Ethiopia, Somalia’s giant neighbour to the west. Ethiopia’s 75 million people outnumber Somalis by more than seven-to-one — but although the Christians of the highlands have always dominated Ethiopia, almost half of its people are Muslims, like the Somalis. In Ethiopia’s sparsely populated eastern desert, the Ogaden, most of the people are not only Muslim but ethnically Somali. This is where the paranoid fantasies kick in.

Most of Ethiopia’s Muslims are too busy scratching a living to challenge the Christian near-monopoly of power in their country, but the last thing Ethiopia’s rulers want to see is an Islamic regime next-door in Somalia. To make matters worse, the Ethiopians suspected that their enemies, the Eritreans, were sending troops and arms to help the Islamic Courts regime in Somalia.

Ethiopia has fought and won two wars with Somalia over the Ogaden, in 1964 and 1977 (back when Somalia had a government and an army). It fought a bitter border war in 1998-2000 with Eritrea, a breakaway province that won its independence in 1993. (Ethiopia has rejected the decision of an independent panel on the border, and that war is just waiting to start again.) So over the past year, Ethiopia’s paranoid fantasies have come together with Washington’s.

The official American position, stated last week by Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is that the UIC is now “controlled by al-Qaeda cell individuals. The top layer of the Court are extremists. They are terrorists.” Even US diplomats in the region privately reject this assertion, but it is now an article of faith in Washington.

Ethiopia accuses the UIC of “threatening Ethiopian sovereignty,” which merely means that senior UIC members make the same claims about the Somali-Ethiopian border that all Somali nationalists of every party have always made. No UIC troops have even approached that border — but just after the UIC took control of Mogadishu in June, Ethiopia started sending troops into Somalia.

The Ethiopians said they were there to support the so-called “transitional government” of Somalia, a body led by Abdullahi Yusuf, a Somali warlord who is a long-standing ally of Addis Ababa. But the “transitional government,” which emerged from UN-backed talks between Somali factions in 2004, lacked popular support and never controlled much except the town of Baidoa, near the Ethiopian border.

In early December, Islamic Court troops moved on Baidoa with the declared intention of driving the Ethiopian troops out. On 24 December, Ethiopia responded with the offensive that has now taken Mogadishu. With overwhelming material superiority and US-supplied satellite surveillance data, the Ethiopians have won an easy victory, and already the warlords who used to dominate the capital are reasserting their control under the shelter of the “transitional government.”

But this is just the start of a long guerilla war that will sap the strength of the Ethiopian army, a Christian-led force backing unpopular warlords in a Muslim country. It will radicalise the Islamic Courts and turn them into exactly the extremist force that Washington and Addis Ababa fear. It will probably radicalise Ethiopian Muslims and start insurrections there. It will almost certainly trigger a new war between Ethiopia and Eritrea (which has sent troops to Somalia to back the UIC).

The Ethiopian invasion is illegal, unjustified and deeply, deeply stupid, but it has Washington’s strong support. From the same folks who brought you Iraq….


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. “Most…Washington’s”

Horn of Africa: The Perfect Storm

24 July 2006

Horn of Africa: The Perfect Storm

By Gwynne Dyer

It has the makings of a perfect storm extending right across the Horn of Africa. The fifteen-year war of all against all in Somalia is threatening to morph into an international war bringing chaos and disaster to the rest of the region, and the al-Qaida-obsessed securocrats in Washington are the ones to blame.

The Somalis have nobody to blame but themselves for their basic plight. Although Somalia has only one ethnic group, one language and one religion, its people are deeply divided by clan, and when long-ruling dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, the clan leaders were unable to unite and form a new government. Instead, the country fell into civil war and anarchy.

A US-led military intervention in 1992 tried to restore order, but after eighteen American soldiers and a thousand Somalis were killed in a single day (the “Black Hawk Down” episode), US forces pulled out. By 1995 all the other United Nations troops had followed, and Somalia was abandoned to its fate as a real-life version of the Mad Max films: no government, no police, no schools, no law, just the trigger-happy troops of rival warlords roaring around in “technicals” mounted with machine-guns or anti-aircraft cannon, stealing and killing to their heart’s content.

But US interest in Somalia re-ignited after the terrorist attacks of 2001, because as a Muslim country without a government it seemed a potential haven for Islamist terrorists. At first American policy concentrated on re-creating a national government, and by 2004 a transitional regime blessed by the United Nations and the African Union and led by one of the warlords, Abdulahi Yusuf, was installed in the town of Baidoa. But he was not in the capital, Mogadishu, because the three warlords who ruled that city rejected his authority. So did most other Somalis.

Meanwhile, a different kind of authority was emerging in Mogadishu: the Islamic courts. It was an attempt, paid for by local businessmen, to restore order by using religious law to settle disputes and punish criminals. Each clan’s court has jurisdiction only over its own clan members, but it was a start on rebuilding a law-abiding society, and in 2004 they all joined to form the Union of Islamic Courts. Unfortunately, the mere use of the word “Islamic” spooked the US government.

As usual, Washington’s response was mainly military. It decided that the Union of Islamic Courts was a threat, and in February CIA planes delivered large amounts of money and guns to the three warlords who dominated Mogadishu. They named themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, and started trying to suppress the UIC.

Rarely has any CIA plot backfired so comprehensively. Volunteers flooded in from all over southern Somalia to resist the warlords’ attack on the only institution that showed any promise of restoring law and order in the country. By early June the last of the warlords had been driven out of Mogadishu, which is now entirely in the hands of the UIC, and for the first time in fifteen years ordinary citizens are safe from robbery, rape and murder.

It is by no means clear that the UIC must fall into the hands of Islamist radicals who will turn Somalia into a safe haven for anti-American terrorists. Left to their own devices, the moderate majority of Somalis can probably ensure that what finally emerges is a moderate Islamic government with strong popular support. But Washington panicked, and last week it let

Ethiopia send troops in to protect the isolated “Interim Government” in Baidoa. That probably means renewed war, and across borders this time.

Ethiopia has five times as many people as Somalia and has already fought two border wars with it, in 1964 and 1977. (Somalia claims most of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, where the people are mostly Muslim and ethnically Somali.) But now it’s more complex:.

Ethiopia is a largely Christian country with big and restive Muslim minorities, and President Meles Zenawi is terrified that militant Islamists in power in Somalia might help those minorities to rebel, but this would not be happening without Washington’s consent. It is exactly the wrong response.

On 10 June Abdulahi Yusuf’s unelected “parliament” in Baidoa voted to seek foreign troops, on 20 June the first Ethiopian troops were spotted in Baidoa — and on the same day Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, the UIC’s deputy head of security, declared: “God willing, we will remove the Ethiopians in our country and wage a jihad against them.”

Just when Somalia was about to escape from its long nightmare, a new and worse one has appeared: the prospect of a war that would consume the entire Horn of Africa (for Eritrea, teetering on the brink of another war with Ethiopia itself, is already sending aid to the UIC). The entire Horn of Africa could spend the next five years going through a catastrophe similar to what the Great Lakes region of Africa suffered in the later 1990s.

Sometimes you really wish that the State Department, rather than the Pentagon and the White House, ran American foreign policy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9and 11. (“Ethiopia…complex”; and “On 10 June…them”)