Ominous Somali Crossroad

Somalia’s long struggle for survival in a hostile world seems about to get worse unless the world, which to date has exacerbated local problems, can carefully nurture the faint ray of light offered by negotiations among moderates occurring amidst general reorganization. [See also “Does Anyone Care About the Somali Disaster?”, Dec. 5; “The Other War Washington Is Losing,” Nov. 26]

That forgotten “other war” in Somalia is about to get even worse…but a ray of light actually exists in Somalia’s long night. (Ethan Zukerman in an excellent review comes down on the very plausible side of getting worse.) At the moment, both the Islamic opposition and the internationally-recognized rump regime supported by the Ethiopian intervention force are reorganizing. The ray of hope is that moderates from the Islamic Courts Union and the rump government are talking and might be able to form a centrist regime.

Unfortunately, although Ethiopia has recently talking about withdrawing, it is actually reinforcing its army in Somalia, which is likely to spark more violence and undermine movement toward compromise. The Ethiopian intervention is what has been fueling the rising extremism over the past two years. More of the same is not likely suddenly to have the exact opposite impact. On the opposite side, the hard-line Islamist faction that emerged in response to the Ethiopian intervention, the Shabab, just declared an Islamic state in territory they control.

Therefore, the ray of light is likely quickly to be darkened: yes, a moderate middle of national reconciliation is emerging, including the prime minister of the rump government and a faction of the old ICU. Conversely, both the Ethiopians and the extreme Islamist faction are consolidating their positions even as peacekeeping efforts appear to be fading. Outside forces with the power to make a difference are happy to exploit Somalia for their broader goals but otherwise reluctant to get involved in any serious effort to restore peace to a society that outsiders have been abusing for so long.

This evidently delicate situation will require careful international handling–sensitivity to local conditions and willingness to listen to local grievances–to avoid intensifying the collapse of Somali society and to preserve what little movement toward peace now exists.

If Obama sincerely intends to “change,” the sudden fluidity in Somalia would make this an opportune moment for shifting Washington’s stance from hard-line reliance on military solutions in support of one side to a neutral search for a solution acceptable to a majority of Somali society.


The Other War Washington Is Losing

While Americans argue about whether or not they are losing the war in Iraq and seem to be reaching agreement that they are losing the war in Afghanistan even as it metastisizes into Pakistan, there is another war that America seems also to be losing: Somalia.

According to Chicago Tribune reporting, the war in Somalia is:

a policy time bomb that will be inherited by the incoming Obama administration: a little-known front in the global war on terrorism that Washington appears to be losing, if it hasn’t already been lost.

Kudos to the Chicago Tribune for reminding this navel-gazing country that its financial crisis did not cause the world to stand still – or cause Washington to review its own behavior.

I have previously referred to the logic that American foreign policy and the on-going financial crisis just might be connected. I would welcome evidence about how this is actually playing out.

Somali Update: Continuing Chaos

Yesterday, I described the post-9/11 neo-con foreign policy as having failed across the Islamic world, citing, among other examples of failure, Somalia. Given the absence of news about this sad and victimized country in the U.S. media, perhaps some details would be in order.

The Guardian described the situation in Somalia in February as follows:

As many experts warned, US collusion with Ethiopia a year ago to
send Ethiopian troops into Mogadishu to topple the Islamic Courts regime has backfired as badly as the invasion of Iraq. According to reports from UN and other aid workers in Somalia, almost three-quarters of a million people have fled since the Ethiopians arrived. Far from eliminating the Islamic Courts, the invasion attracted waves of new recruits, motivated by resentment at the presence of foreign troops and not just by jihadi ideology. The Ethiopians installed one of the worst Somali warlords as mayor of Mogadishu, allowing him to turn his militia into the police. Most of the capital’s people are from a
different clan.

Resistance has intensified in the past months as the occupation shows no sign of ending, and Islamist insurgents now operate well beyond Mogadishu. Indiscriminate mortaring and machine-gun fire by all sides is said by aid workers to be horrendous, though there are no TV cameras to raise international alarm. Adding to the chaos, insurgent groups are splitting – with the same erosion of discipline and clan rivalry that have divided rebel movements in Darfur. This reduces the chance of holding successful peace talks.

Banditry is on the rise with aid workers increasingly targets, as last month’s killing of three staff for Médecins sans Frontières demonstrates. MSF has now withdrawn all its international doctors, leaving hospitals without surgeons.

Meanwhile, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) still
sits in the town of Baidoa, with no presence in the capital except for a
fortified and symbolic mini-green zone. What little support the TFG had in Mogadishu has disappeared.

In the first few days of March alone, the U.S. launched a missile attack on Somali town; its residents held a protest against the attack; Islamists briefly captured two strategic towns– Belet Weyne, astride the main supply route for Ethiopian forces, and Hudur, also on the road from Ethiopia; and 15 Ethiopian soldiers were killed in Mogadishu. The destruction of Somalia continues…

Election Debate: Where Are the Ideas?

An election in a democracy should be an opportunity for fresh ideas to rise to the top. So where are the ideas in the current U.S. presidential election? The list of dangerous and highly unstable situations in the world that are likely to make life miserable for the next U.S. president is long, and the level of instability is rising. Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, and Colombia-Ecuador-Venezuela are all on a knife’s edge. Mexico’s drug cartel issue is not far behind.

From the Republican side, Ron Paul has been shunted aside, and McCain is grinning, “Full speed ahead!” One wonders exactly where he thinks he is going.

From the Democratic side, Kucinich and Robertson and Gravel have been shunted aside. Obama says “Change!” and says it grandly, but whenever he makes the mistake of becoming specific, he sounds just like every other mainstream leader who has gotten us into this trouble. Clinton can’t make up her mind whether she (A) is still part of Bill Clinton’s old liberal group that offered such hope to the nation for a brief moment so long ago or (B) another angry Republican suffering from an overdose of testosterone.

Neither Clinton nor Obama looks like Bush, and neither is likely to win by trying. On domestic issues, there are real differences, but the rest of the world is not going to disappear. How to climb out of the hole we have dug ourselves into needs to be addressed.

Nader is not going to win, unless of course the unthinkable happens and we all start thinking for ourselves, but at the moment a protest vote for Nader does indeed, as suggested elsewhere, sound like the way to go.

Africa’s Horn: Blowing a Warning about an Islamic Political Fault Line

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,[1] 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,”[2] 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. [3]
  • According to the UN, the two sides now have a total of 200,000 along their 1000-kilometer border,[4] 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,[5] and the establishment of an Islamic state in Somalia.[6]
  • Ethiopia has been interfering in Somalia’s domestic situation since at least 2002[7] 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.[8] Indeed,

  • Eritrea sent arms and soldiers to help the Islamic Courts Union;[9]
  • 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;[10]
  • 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,[11] 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[12] 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.[14]
  • The UN reported in late 2006 that Somali activists had supported Hezbollah’s effort to resist the summer 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.[15]
  • 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.[16]
  • US viewing the war as anti-Islamic makes the fighting worse, compromise more difficult.[17]

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,[18] 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.[19] 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.

[2] Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia pursuant to Security Council resolution 1587 (2005) in
[3] “Ethiopian President Calls for Military Buildup to Counter Eritrea,” Associated Press, Octobder 8, 2007, in
[4] Jack Kimball, “Eritrea Accuses Ethiopia of Having ‘Declared War,’” Reuters, November 21, 2007, in
[5] Jonathan Stevenson, “What’s Going On in Somalia?,” December 27, 2006, in
[6] Meron Tesfa Michael, “Somalia: Rocky Road to Peace, March 25, 2003, in
[7] Meron, op cit.
[9] Jonathan Stevenson, “What’s Going On in Somalia?,” December 27, 2006, in
[10] “Islamic Courts at Eritrea Meeting,” in
[14] “Counter-terrorism in Somalia: Losing Hearts and Minds?” International Crisis Group, Africa Report No. 95, July 11, 2005.
[16] .
[17] .