Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mission Accomplished?

Reuters is reporting that Ethiopian troops will begin withdrawing from the Somali capital of Mogadishu today. While the current Somali government has maintained, repeatedly, that the Ethiopian soldiers will be replaced with a contingent of peacekeepers from the African Union (made up of troops from several African nations), the willingness and ability of the African Union to muster and deploy such a force remains in doubt given its current commitments in Darfur and general logistical difficulties.

Further complicating the matter, playing referee to warring factions in Mogadishu is not exactly a plum assignment conducive to peacekeeping success, or light-footprinted deployments. Somalia's notorious clan-based conflicts are not only limited to the current Somali government's (TFG) battles with factions loyal to the ousted Islamic Courts Union (ICU). Even the TFG coalition has begun to splinter and fall prey to infighting.

Tim Lister explains the scope of the challenge:

Occupying Mogadishu, as U.S. and other forces found in the 1990s, is a perilous undertaking. A city of narrow streets and alleys and hundreds of wrecked buildings, it is perfect territory for snipers and suicide bombers. The Ethiopians say they want to withdraw from Somalia within weeks, aware of the potential quagmire it might otherwise become. Even on the day they entered Mogadishu, some Ethiopian convoys were attacked by crowds throwing stones. Two weeks later, an ambush of a Somali/Ethiopian convoy in the south of the city, where the Islamic Courts were strongest, left two people dead. The transitional government has declared martial law to try to bring order to the city.

Besides the Islamist threat, there is the task of subduing various clans that use checkpoints as a license for extortion and harass businesses. There is no police presence in Mogadishu, so that task will fall to soldiers of the transitional government and the Ethiopians....Within two weeks of the Islamists' expulsion, there were signs of a resurgence in clan warfare. Several were killed in a firefight between TFG troops and militia of clan leader Mohamed Qanyare Afrah outside the Villa Somalia, the presidential residence. "Another Iraq is not going to happen in Somalia," declared Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, but the Ethiopians are facing overlapping conflicts and rivalries that would be familiar to U.S. commanders in Baghdad.

Well, Prime Minister Meles may be able to make good on the vow that Somalia will not turn into another Iraq - for Ethiopian forces at least. Rather than opting to stick around, attending to the difficult task of establishing security and stability, the Ethiopians have one foot out the door. In that same article from just a few days ago, Tim Lister asked:

Will the Ethiopians now stay in Somalia to provide order or withdraw quickly and hope that the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) can establish its authority?

The answer to the first part of the question seems to be coming together already. As to Ethiopia's intentions to support the long term success of the TFG, as I suggested earlier, for Ethiopia: "[d]estabilizing Somalia, and leaving it wracked with violence and disorder, is a feature not a bug." At the very least, it isn't worth the trouble to try to prevent (albeit, a cynical perspective).

Somalia is a regional rival with a long history of conflict with Ethiopia. The two nations have been feuding over contested borders, and the inclination of separatist ethnic/religious movements residing across those disputed borders, for decades. The notion that Ethiopia's recent intervention in Somalia was born out of altruistic concern for the well being of the Somalis is beyond naive.

While the Ethiopian government had some legitimate gripes with the ICU, it is difficult to see any of these as a legitimate cassus belli. Instead, the invasion looks more and more like a regional powerplay designed to knock its rival off balance - while creating a domestic political windfall for the unpopular Ethiopian regime (and giving it license to further repress internal political rivals).

With that in mind, it becomes easier to appreciate the fact that for Ethiopia, the current state of play in Somalia - despite the likelihood of a descent into lawless violence - looks like Mission Accomplished.

Kind of makes all those conservative pundits who were breathlessly heaping praise on the prowess of Ethiopia's military look a little silly. For these pundits, Ethiopia had unlocked the secret to military success that had thus far eluded us in Iraq: a combination of extreme indifference to civilian life, and relative non-attention from the meddlesome media. Cliff May, in a pique of infatuation, asked:

Maybe we can learn something from the Ethiopians in Somalia?

John Miller followed this up with even more over the top adulation:

…I can’t read the news today and keep from wondering whether we should airlift a few Ethiopian battalions into Baghdad.

Come to think of it, Miller and May might just have a point - even if not the one intended. If we could airlift a few Ethiopian battalions into Baghdad, maybe they could show us how to head for the exits.

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