A map of current conflicts and areas of political tension that could soon turn into conflicts in the Islamic world appears to show a single, almost continuous political fault line. If the various individual political issues in the Islamic world are indeed being united by the emergence of such a fault line threatening to crack open the Islamic world over a single issue, then it should be possible to find in any of the individual issues evidence of a broader pan-Islamic contest. While the answer might seem intuitively obvious for such cases as Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine, or Afghanistan, what about an area at one end of the alleged fault line? What about the Horn of Africa?
Hypothesis = If the various individual political contests in the Islamic
world are being united by the emergence of an Islamic political fault line, then within each of those contests evidence of a broader pan-Islamic contest.
The failure of the international effort to settle the Eritrean-Ethiopian border dispute is now official,
an outcome that should have surprised no one because the border dispute is just one part of a must larger regional dispute that has entangled 1) Somalia’s struggle to re-create a national government, 2) a revolt by ethnic Somalis in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and 3) the broader Western struggle against Islamic fundamentalism. Linkage among issues has historically been disparaged by political scientists with good reason for serving as an excuse for the failure to make progress on anything, but it is highly questionable whether or not real progress can indeed be made toward resolving conflict in the Horn of Africa unless all these problems are dealt with simultaneously.
The reality of a political dispute is layered like an onion, except worse, since it is seldom clear which layer is the core or how they should be ordered. Perhaps the basic layer in the Horn of Africa is a broad socio-political struggle to reconstitute an ordered society, lost during the long struggle against the predatory interference of colonialism and Cold War antagonists. While the struggle in the Horn of Africa certainly resembles struggles elsewhere by local populations to re-order societies smashed by interaction with the West, this struggle in the Horn of Africa is at its core a local affair. Other local layers complicating the onion of political contention are a social struggle for economic survival and justice as well as a political struggle for power. More precisely, one could view each of the above layers existing independently in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia—three of the four countries (along with Djibouti) today making up the Horn of Africa—or even break the process down more finely, with numerous spatial and temporal variations. One glimpse into the complexities of the situation is offered in the observation that by 2005 opposition to the Transitional Federal Government that had been formed in Somalia included “businessmen, warlords, organizations such as Al Itihad Al Islaami and dissident ministers of TFG,” with both sides rapidly importing weapons, a situation that may have been local at its core but which opened the door to all manner of outside exploitation and interference.
The importance of local issues notwithstanding, a regional competition linking the whole Horn together complicates efforts at resolving the local issues. Eritrea and Ethiopia have been struggling directly with each other since Eritrea became independent in the early 1990s after a 30-year war with Ethiopia.
- A border war between the two in 1998 led to some 70,000 casualties. 
- According to the UN, the two sides now have a total of 200,000 along their 1000-kilometer border, and they have yet to reach agreement on where the border should lie.
- Al-Ittihad al-Islamiah (Islamic Union), a Somali group with ties to the Islamic Courts Union, has been working for many years for the secession of the ethnic Somali Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia.
- Ethiopia has been interfering in Somalia’s domestic situation since at least 2002 and Eritrea on the opposing side probably equally long.
Today, both are now so deeply involved in Somalia’s efforts to reconstitute itself as a functioning society with an effective government that the internal Somali conflict has been described as an Eritrean-Ethiopian proxy war. Indeed,
- Eritrea sent arms and soldiers to help the Islamic Courts Union;
- leaders of the Islamic Courts Union met this fall in Eritrea to “establish a political organization” to “liberate” Somalia from the Ethiopians” according to one of the party’s leaders;
- a year ago when it became clear that the Islamic Courts Union was about to unify Somalia, U.S.-backed Ethiopia intervened with overwhelming military force and temporarily defeated the Islamic Courts Union, before becoming bogged down;
- The US is reportedly supporting Ethiopia’s brutal effort to suppress a long-standing successionist movement in its Ogaden region, where the Ethiopian use of untrained troops, the blockade of food supplies to civilians to punish the population by the Ethiopian government, and Ethiopian army massacres of villagers are alleged.
The result is a steady spread of the epidemic of violence throughout the region, with Somalia and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia now engulfed in intensifying violence and the Ethiopian-Eritrean border threatening to be the next battleground.
On top of these layers lie broader pan-Islamic issues that Washington is guilty of both stimulating and aggravating. As William Minter warned a year ago in an article comparing U.S. behavior toward Iraq with its behavior toward Somalia,
The United States and Ethiopia cut short efforts at reconciliation and
relied on hyped-up intelligence. They disregarded Somali and wider African
opinion in an effort to kill alleged terrorists. And while chalking up
military “victories,” they aggravated long-term problems. Far from advancing
an effective strategy against terrorism, the intervention is providing
opportunities for terrorist groups to expand their reach.
The evidence suggests that outside forces have been working to radicalize the Horn of Africa.
According to a 2002 UN report, not only has Ethiopia been arming militias in Somalia but so have the U.S., as well as Middle Eastern and East European countries.
- On top of the original al Qua’ida presence in Somalia in the 1990s, in 2003 a new network emerged and the U.S. built up a network to oppose it.
- The UN reported in late 2006 that Somali activists had supported Hezbollah’s effort to resist the summer 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
- US support for Ethiopian military involvement broadens the war from a regional conflict to a global one, tempting in forces whose primary interest is fighting against the U.S.
- US viewing the war as anti-Islamic makes the fighting worse, compromise more difficult.
The evidence that significant forces within the Horn want their societies to be on the frontline of a global attack on the West, however, is very thin indeed. An argument that any one of these societies itself constitutes a threat to the West and thus needs to be attacked and suppressed would be difficult to support. Whatever threat to the West may be coming from this region appears to exist because the internal chaos opens the door to outside intervention and exploitation. It follows that the resolution of the problem is likely to come through providing help for these societies to stand on their own, not through military attacks that spread further violence.
The implications of the trend toward broader conflict and more outside involvement are ominous. First, the problem becomes steadily more complicated and more difficult to resolve. For example, in recent years, social chaos increasingly dissatisfied the business community in Mogadishu, so it backed the creation of Islamic courts, which both worked to bring social peace and rules of behavior in accordance with Islamic precepts. The more these courts focused on Islamic legal principles, the more they were accused of being in league with “terror”; the more they were so accused, the more military pressure was brought on them by the U.S., Ethiopia, and their Somali allies. The courts, which seem to have started as a reasonable response to the social chaos that existed, are now united as a political party. In fact, this party also appeared to be bringing peace and order to Somalia until it was overthrown by force in 2007 by Ethiopian troops. In the event, the party is now running a rebellion against that Ethiopian army, and is accused of being part of a jihadi terror movement. Which is chicken and which is egg is hard to say: it is not at all clear what the likelihood was that the Islamic Courts Union, if allowed to unify the country, given international diplomatic recognition , and offered international aid, might have ended up being a proxy for al Qua’ida, willing to put Somalia on the front line in a global conflict against the West. One can only wonder what the result might have been if the courts had been welcomed and supported by the West for bringing justice to a land plagued by chaos; instead of pushing all Moslems together and alienating them all, what if moderate Islamic activism were encouraged by the West as a means of providing local justice?
Second, the more the U.S. supports the military intervention of an anti-Islamic country using extreme violence and punishment of the civilian population, the more this will come to be perceived as a crusade for all Islamic activists. Even when justified in an immediate sense, counterterrorist efforts that are perceived as heavy-handed alienate the population. Like Iraq after the 2003 US invasion, the Horn of Africa will become a target attracting radicals.
Third, the more violence is used as the method of resolving conflict, the more it tends to be exploited for criminal purposes, e.g., armies stealing property, attacking hospitals, using horrendous weapons such as white phosphorus that undoubtedly create more antagonism than their military value. As violence increases, the tendency of the TFG and its allies to exploit the chaos by making alarmist accusations of “terrorism” to enhance their influence rises.
War Against Islamic Extremism or War by Western Extremism? The evidence concerning the root causes of conflict in the Horn of Africa make it clear that local causes are critically important. The failure to replace functioning traditional methods of governance over the last half century with new forms after the harsh process of contact with the Western world destroyed those traditional methods as well as the ensuing local collapse of political structure, starvation, militarization of society, and injustice form the core of the region’s conflict. Regional competition for power both by ethnic groups desiring some mixture of respect, equality, autonomy, or sovereignty and by arrogant politicians exploiting real problems for personal gain is exacerbating the local issues.
Conflict in the Horn has surely become complicated by a global struggle between Islam and the West. The evidence does suggest that the conflict in the Horn of Africa is being exploited by outside forces on both sides. Both Islamic extremists and some Western politicians, eager to provoke a titanic conflict that each side believes it can win, are increasingly pushing the people of the Horn into extreme positions, undercutting the moderate middle, in order to fight a proxy war at the expense of the populations of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. As in the Cold War, local people are being forced to choose sides in a fight that is really not their fight. The battle in the Horn of Africa, as it was in the Cold War, is primarily about justice, security, and governance, but the world will not leave the Horn alone…in part, for sure, because in any disrupted society, volunteers can always be found to help bring the world’s battles into the local backyard. As the political arena is polarized by the efforts of outside forces to win through military means and social problems are intensified by the resultant chaos, individuals who might have become reformers become radicalized. As war eliminates the option of moderate reform, reformers turn into radicals and join sides with extremist outside forces, which, if nothing else, can at least offer money and weapons.
It remains far less clear, however, that the Islamic groups, such as the Islamic Courts Union, operating today in the Horn of Africa would participate in an international military jihad against the U.S. if offered the choice of concentrating on reestablishing a just and peaceful society at home. The U.S. needs to examine conflict in Islamic societies with much finer resolution…to distinguish between Islamic extremists bent on violence against civilians and Islamic activists whose goal is domestic reform. These two groups agree that their societies have problems–at least in part created by contact with the West–that need to be resolved, but they do not necessarily agree on the methods or the end goal. Lumping these groups together not only creates a much more powerful opponent, it leaves the local population with little choice but to support the extremists.
To resolve this conflict, methods of undercutting local extremists and preventing them from joining the world’s battles without bringing those battles to local societies that are simply struggling for domestic justice must be found. The issue is not about convincing the societies of the Horn of Africa to support some Western global struggle; the issue is about insulating these long-mistreated societies from outside problems so they can deal with their own problems. Both Washington and al Qua’ida emphasize military power and political polarization: is this approach working? The explosion of Somali refugees during the year of U.S.-supported Ethiopian military intervention in the Somali civil war makes the answer clear: 1,000,000 Somalis, some 15% of the population, is now displaced. For those who see chaos as the way to achieve their goals, yes, the method is working.
 Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia pursuant to Security Council resolution 1587 (2005) in http://www.reliefweb.int/library/documents/2005/unsc-som-07Oct.pdf.
 “Ethiopian President Calls for Military Buildup to Counter Eritrea,” Associated Press, Octobder 8, 2007, in http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/LSGZ-796F2F?OpenDocument&rc=1&cc=eri.
 Jack Kimball, “Eritrea Accuses Ethiopia of Having ‘Declared War,’” Reuters, November 21, 2007, in http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/LSGZ-796F2F?OpenDocument&rc=1&cc=eri.
 Jonathan Stevenson, “What’s Going On in Somalia?,” December 27, 2006, in http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009440.
 Meron Tesfa Michael, “Somalia: Rocky Road to Peace, March 25, 2003, in http://www.worldpress.org/Africa/1016.cfm.
 Meron, op cit.
 Jonathan Stevenson, “What’s Going On in Somalia?,” December 27, 2006, in http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009440.
 “Islamic Courts at Eritrea Meeting,” in http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/B54AA636-A618-459C-9FC3-C785A5FC7D39.htm.
 “Counter-terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?” International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 95, July 11, 2005.
 http://www.hiiraan.com/op2/2007/nov/the_u_s_secret_war_in_the_horn_of_africa.aspx .
 http://blog.wired.com/defense/2007/11/just-when-it-se.html .