Friday, November 16, 2007

When a Plan Comes Together Like That

Back when it first became apparent that the Bush administration had opted to support Ethiopia's "benevolent" invasion of Somalia, I raised caution flags concerning both our decision to get so deeply involved in a complex regional conflict, as well as our choice of proxy. At the time, Ethiopia was portrayed by those lauding the invasion as a concerned neighbor that wanted to assist Somalia's return to prominence, while protecting itself from Islamic extremists and staving off unrest in the disputed Ogaden region. Ethiopia sought to achieve these ends, ostensibly, by invading Somalia, toppling the ruling Islamic Courts Union (ICU) government and helping to install the exiled and unpopular (though UN and AU backed) Transitional Federal Government (TFG) regime.

While some or all of those interests could be viewed as worthy goals by the Ethiopian leadership, there was a baser motive that might have been superior to all in Ethiopia's calculus. Ethiopia is a long-time regional rival of Somalia, as the two nations have fought wars over disputed territory (the Ogaden region mentioned above) and access to the ocean. Thus, it is in Ethiopia's interest to keep Somalia destabilized, chaotic and weak so that Somalia cannot challenge Ethiopia's territorial acquisitions and regional hegemony. While these more cynical goals might be consistent with Ethiopia's national interest, it has been an enormous and ongoing error to enmesh ourselves with such objectives.

A recent report from the Jamestown Foundation (h/t Brian Ulrich) reveals the unsurprising:

The conflict in Somalia is spreading, drawing in fighters and displacing increasing numbers of civilians. Violence has erupted in the previously calmer north of Somalia, with border clashes between the forces of semi-autonomous Puntland and the self-declared republic of Somaliland.

Ethiopia, true to form, is allied with the Somaliland faction that, again, is pursuing an armed conflict that is destabilizing Somalia. As for securing the Ogaden region, the invasion has actually sparked unrest in some quarters, and has been used as a pretext by the Ethiopian government to brutally crackdown on the region's inhabitants in others (see here for some details).

This McClatchey article (cited by China Hand), fills in some of the more gruesome details of Ethiopia's campaign in Somalia - one that we have, somewhat unwittingly, adopted as our own:

More than 114,000 people fled their homes over the past two weeks, according to United Nations estimates released on Friday. Humanitarian officials said that many more fled over the weekend after Islamists ambushed a convoy of Ethiopian troops and dragged the dead body of a soldier through the streets, triggering a spasm of Ethiopian reprisal attacks.

"Somalia's worst displacement ever took place in the last few days," said an official with a Western aid agency in Mogadishu who asked not to be identified for security reasons. "Nearly four districts of the city have been totally cleared out."

Some 850,000 Somalis — perhaps one in six — are displaced within their own country, the most in years. Fewer than 10 percent of them are receiving any humanitarian aid, and most live in desperate conditions in makeshift refugee encampments scattered around Mogadishu's outskirts.

The latest turmoil is producing a ghastly conclusion to an apocalyptic year, even for Somalia, which hasn't had a functioning government in 16 years.

But, you might argue, surely the unrestrained brutality of the Ethiopians is paying off in terms of clamping down on the insurgency just as so many conservative pundits assured us, right?

Human rights groups charge that the Ethiopian forces are carelessly killing civilians.

Some Mogadishu residents said that the Ethiopians retaliated brutally to last week's fatal ambush, fanning out across the city in tanks on Thursday and spraying neighborhoods with bullets. Bodies lay in the streets overnight, where they bled to death as frightened residents barricaded themselves in their homes, witnesses said.

"We collected 16 bodies, mostly elderly people, women and children. They were shot in the heads," said Daud Soleyman, a resident of the Hamar Jadid neighborhood who described the scene the morning after the Ethiopian reprisals. Ethiopian forces returned that morning and again opened fire, Soleyman said, and it took hours to collect all the bodies.

Such tactics seem certain to fuel the insurgency.

"The Ethiopians are becoming impatient, meaning that they now retaliate indiscriminately," said the Western aid official. "That, of course, leads to more resistance."

The US justified its intervention based on links between the ICU and al-Qaeda - even though the extent of those links was somewhat exaggerated, and backing Ethiopia's invasion was a counterproductive means to combat al-Qaeda regardless:

The violence, growing in intensity as well as spreading across the wider Somali region, is being exacerbated by the escalating insurgency in Mogadishu....It is feared...that the fighting is boosting the influence of hard-line powerful militias, which use long-standing local grievances to strengthen their own radical movements.

Not only is the US helping to strengthen the very movements that it seeks to undermine, while engendering a potent anti-American backlash by tying its image to the brutal and self-serving Ethiopian regime, but the instability that we are complicit in creating provides fertile ground, and ample space, for extremism to flourish and operate.

The ICU had several serious shortcomings as a ruling regime, and there was much to take issue with. This is not to suggest that they were worthy of our support. But under the ICU's brief reign, Mogadishu was at least relatively peaceful, as was northern Somalia. Crime in and around the capital was vastly scaled back - which considering the incessant roadblock embezzlement engaged in by warlords, is no small feat. As a result, the economy was returning to normal and ordinary Somalis were getting a respite from decades' worth of non-stop violence.

Now, Somalis are being displaced in record numbers, hardships are eclipsing past record levels (which is saying a lot) and the country is plunged into pervasive chaos and violence. As Rob Farley pointed out, the unrest has even given a booster shot to the piracy racket off the Horn, which was somewhat waning under the ICU's stewardship.

In exchange, neither the US nor Ethiopia has realized any of their respective stated goals. From the perspective of US interests, we have not captured or killed the high value al-Qaeda targets that were rumored to be in the region, al-Qaeda operatives are still free to operate in destabilized Somalia (many foreign fighters have actually streamed in post-invasion) and we have given a boon to extremism and anti-Americanism generally speaking. Ethiopia, for its part, has not helped to calm Ogaden (the opposite has occurred), nor has the TFG been able to bring stability to Somalia (again, the opposite).

Then again, Somalia is destabilized, chaotic and weak. But I'm sure that's just a coincidence.

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