The last of the Ethiopian soldiers left Mogadishu on Thursday, concluding their long-awaited evacuation of the capital city. Their departure was feted in the streets by euphoric throngs of cheering residents, who, one might imagine, had the same thought in their minds as President Meles Zenawi: “goodbye, and good riddance.” With Islamist militias sweeping in to fill the vacuum, the political complexion of the city appears much the same as it did when the Ethiopians found it, leaving observers to wonder why exactly they were sent in the first place. Indeed, if it were not for the summary executions, rapes, theft, and rampant depopulation caused by Ethiopian forces, the mission could be dismissed as mere farcical bumbling by the autocratic Mr. Zenawi.
Alas, the 29-month US-backed Ethiopian mission to southern Somalia must be judged as an unmitigated foreign policy, not to mention humanitarian, disaster. After accelerating the pace of their invasion in December 2006, Ethiopian forces rapidly overwhelmed the starkly unprepared Islamic Courts Union (ICU) militias, taking Mogadishu in a matter of days. Much of the upper-echelon ICU leadership fled into exile in Eritrea and Djibouti, including moderates Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed and Sharif Hassan, who subsequently formed the “opposition party” Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS). Those who remained were the leaders of the hardline military wing of the Islamic Courts, Al-Shabaab, as well as the thousands of destitute clan militiamen from whom Shabaab recruits. The group, led by radicals Hassan Abdullah al-Turki and Mukthar Robow, subsequently organized an insurgency from bases near the Kenyan border. The ensuing humanitarian catastrophe needs no protracted retelling; according to the UN, since the Ethiopian occupation began 60% of Mogadishu residents have been forced to flee the city, and 3.2 million Somalis are currently at immediate risk of starvation. Ethiopian soldiers reacted to the insurgency with increasingly brutal measures: in May 2008, Amnesty International charged Ethiopian forces with a litany of human rights abuses, including throat-slitting, eye-gouging, gang-rape, and the massacre of 21 people at the Al-Hidya Mosque in Mogadishu. Compounding the already tense situation was the Ethiopian’s backing of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), an administration of “national unity” that is regarded by many southern Hawiyes as a Darood clan militia. Such actions did little to endear the Ethiopian troops to an already hostile local population.
Considering the country’s acrimonious history with its westerly neighbour, it is hardly shocking that Somalis came to regard the Ethiopian presence as a foreign invasion. What is shocking is the inability of Ethiopian officials to predict it. Granted, UN Security Council Resolution 1725 called for an African Union (AU) force of 8,000 soldiers—from nations not bordering on Somalia—to replace the Ethiopians. But the force never materialized to its planned dimensions, and only 2,400 peacekeepers, mostly Ugandans and Burundians, comprise the AMISOM mission currently on the ground. This was also to be expected; in a region where peacekeepers have not traditionally enjoyed a cake-and-candles reception, governments are understandably wary about committing their troops. But the startling fact that Addis Ababa was willing to launch its invasion without realistic hope for a fully-equipped AU relief force shows that Zenawi’s planning went beyond irresponsible. In any case, AU troops themselves have been increasingly targeted by Shabaab, a trend that is likely to accelerate once the Ethiopian presence has been removed and AMISOM becomes the sole foreign occupying force in the region.
The departing Ethiopian soldiers will have ample opportunity to consider their failure (and the senseless deaths of the unreported hundreds of their colleagues) during the 500km trek back to their nation’s border. But the deeper contemplation should occur in Addis Ababa and Washington, where the ill-conceived Ethiopian intervention was first envisaged. It is tempting to view Ethiopia’s latest meddling in Somali affairs as the exclusive product of US string-pulling. Contrary to the beliefs of many Somalis, however, the Ethiopian invasion was not solely the result of American puppetry, but had its own, distinct foreign policy objectives. The Ethiopian casus belli was straightforward: the ICU presented a “clear and present danger” to the nation’s interests. The ICU had declared a jihad on Ethiopia, hosted two insurgencies hostile to the Ethiopian government, made irredentist claims on Ethiopian territory, and reportedly had ties to Ethiopia’s enemy Eritrea. On the other hand, the United States was driven, not for the first time, by the singular aim of preventing Somalia from being used as a safe haven for Al-Qaeda operatives. It is unclear how much direct influence Washington had in provoking the Ethiopian invasion. While there were few, if any, American troops on the ground, the US aided Ethiopia in a variety of ways: providing intelligence, funds, logistical and air support, as well as deflecting international criticism and sponsoring Security Council Resolution 1725. Nonetheless, the relationship was not one of patron and client state; conjoined political objectives may have resulted in the two into jumping into bed together, but it was a passion willingly shared by both parties. What is clear is that the Ethiopian intervention would not have been as sustained and determined as it was without American support and assistance. The United States thus shares a large burden of blame for the hapless consequences of the Ethiopian mission.
America’s successes since embarking on its self-appointed mission to end global Terror have not been abundant. Somalia can be added to the expanding list of US fiascos when it is confronted with so-called “Islamist” movements: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, and even Lebanon—situations exacerbated by a myopic focus on the vague objectives of the “War on Terror.” In each of these cases, the US has shown remarkable obdurateness in the consistently narrow range of policy options it has employed, attempting to bludgeon the undesired organizations out of existence without addressing the underlying causes for their continued perseverance. The seemingly bewitched enthusiasm with which US leaders launch missile strikes whenever the fuzzy and imprecise label of “Islamist” is applied to a political organization gives the impression that the term is a kind of voodoo bulls-eye for American bombs. American policymakers have yet to learn that violence should be used not as a club, but as a scalpel.
Thus it was no surprise that following the ICU takeover the United States reflexively jumped to the aid of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT), a cynically-titled amalgam of besieged Mogadishu warlords. According to The Guardian, the CIA allegedly funnelled $100,000 to $150,000 per month to the ARPCT, while paying nominal lip-service to the concept of a country unified under the TFG. The motive for this hypocrisy was the prevention of the dreaded Islamist takeover of Somalia. In fact, there were few confirmed Al-Qaeda operatives sheltering in Somalia—as one might expect in a country so open and flat that US spy planes can likely spot every camel spitting in the desert. According to a 2005 International Crisis Group (ICG) report, there were six known Al-Qaeda associates hiding in the country. The US Department of State lists four Al-Qaeda operatives in Somalia, as well as six members of the ICU with peripheral ties to the terrorist organization. Topping the American shopping list was the head of the ICU’s shura council, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, who earned this dangerous honour on the merits of his former membership in Al-Itihaad Al-Islaam, a splinter group of a local Somali chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Prominent Al-Shabaab commanders Aden Hashi Ayro, Hassan Abdullah al-Turki, and Mukthar Robow have also attracted American attention.1
The Islamic Courts Union was not the sinister, murderous, freedom-despising cult that would rush to mind for most American politicians hearing the word “Islamist.” History shows that self-described Islamist groups often begin as social movements, filling the gaps created by the failure of secular governments to provide basic services. The history of the “original” Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, provides an apt example, as its growth in popularity among Egyptians can be attributed to the readiness of its members to provide medical, housing, disaster relief, and other social services neglected by the Mubarak regime. The ICU—whose beginnings date to 1994—had analogous origins, perhaps unsurprising in light of its founder’s, Sheikh Aweys, ideological affiliation with the Brotherhood. In a vein similar to the Brotherhood, the Islamic Courts sought to use the moral influence and charitable values of Islam to restore security, law, and basic social services to an anarchic environment. Shortly after seizing power, the ICU was able to make impressive strides in Mogadishu: it re-opened the main airport and seaport, removed roadblocks and rubbish piles, halted illegal land grabs, and opened special courts to deal with property restitution. It operated schools, hospitals, and businesses. Most importantly to the local population, however, the Courts created a security environment not seen in the city since the outbreak of the civil war fifteen years previously. This is not to say that long-term governance by the ICU was in the best interests of Somali national reconciliation, especially considering that many Somalis living outside of the southern regions viewed the Islamic Courts as a machine of Hawiye (specifically, Habr Gedir) domination. But peace and security—in addition to being a prerequisite for nation-building—are no friend to the violence and disorder created by terrorism. In destroying the conditions for peace and security, the United States’ Somalia strategy was ultimately self-defeating. Former State Department African Official J. Anthony Holmes summed up the US policy perfectly when he said “We’ve been trying to kill terrorists rather than to facilitate the rebuilding of a state that would be inhospitable to terrorists.”
Seen in this light, one wonders how much khat American and Ethiopian officials were chewing during their policy brainstorming sessions. In a recent paper published by the Enough Project, noted Horn of Africa specialist Ken Menkhaus concludes that US counterterrorism policies have “generated a high level of anti-Americanism and are contributing to radicalization of the population….in what could become a dangerous instance of blowback, defence and intelligence operations intended to make the United States more secure from the threat of terrorism may be increasing the threat of jihadist attacks on American interests.” Ethiopian and American policies in the region have destabilized the political balance, triggered a humanitarian catastrophe, empowered Islamist hardliners, radicalized the population, and fomented anti-US sentiment. All in order to complicate the lives of a half score terrorist suspects—men who will likely be replaced with interest by the next children whose parents are collateral damage of an American missile strike.
Was it really worth it? No tangible goal of the American counterterrorism agenda has been achieved. Of the State Department’s desired targets, only one, Shabaab military commander Sheikh Ayro, has been killed, eradicated by an American Tomahawk missile in May 2008. In a fitting confirmation of the sheer perversity and backwardness of the United States’ strategy in Somalia, the most clear-cut fulfilment of its stated aims, the assassination of Sheikh Ayro, resulted in further detriment to American interests in the region. The killing triggered a further radicalization of Al-Shabaab, which subsequently began to target western aid workers, eventually forcing UN agency employees to join the hundreds of thousands Mogadishu residents heading for the Kenyan border. Other aid agencies have ceased operations as well, and the humanitarian situation has continued to worsen. Nor did the March 2008 decision to place Al-Shabaab on the US list of international terrorist organizations serve any constructive purpose: as Menkhaus points out, doing so permanently removed Shabaab’s seat at the negotiating table, giving the organization “even more reason to sabotage” the ongoing Djibouti Agreement peace talks.
The status of the Somali nation-building project is unquestionably worse than it was before the arrival of the Ethiopian forces. Desperation breeds extremism, and the overall result of Ethiopian and US foreign policy in Somalia has been to empower hardliners in opposing camps—the ICU hardliners, namely the leaders of Al-Shabaab, as well as the virulently anti-Islamist faction of the TFG, headed by Abdullahi Yusuf. Now that Yusuf has been forced from power, one block on the road to reconciliation has been cleared. But with Al-Shabaab poised to take over in the South, the peace entreaties of the sidelined ARS moderates amount to nothing more than a plea to end their collective exile. Without Shabaab, the recently signed Djibouti Agreement is but a piece of paper. Attempting to implement its provisions will only result in another TFG: MPs without constituents, ministers without portfolios, and a government without power.
Somalia policy is in need of a fundamental rethinking.