Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Roll Rastafari Chariot Along - Part II: Who's Riding Shotgun?

In Part I of this series, I took note of the premature, exaggerated and morally suspect praise for the Ethiopian military's early successes in its Somalia campaign. Ethiopia's martial prowess exhibited during the invasion was touted by conservative pundits as the product of Ethiopia's excessively brutal tactics and lack of regard for innocent civilian life and the associated moral condemnation from the international community. The next step for these pundits was to argue that if we would only imitate this savagery and callousness in our Iraqi counterinsurgency operations, we too could enjoy sweeping victory.

This skewed analysis ignores the basic fact that in such confrontations, an army with air power, armor and artillery (Ethiopia's) can almost always initially beat disorganized bands of untrained fighters with small arms and the occasional "technical" (a term that refers to a flatbed truck with a .50 caliber machine gun affixed to the bed). On top of Ethiopia's already superior military capacity, it now appears that its forces were bolstered by US air support, as well as support from units on the ground.

Worse still, those that seek to draw lessons from Ethiopia's recent experience simply glide passed the all important fact that American forces, like Ethiopia's, achieved most of their goals in the invasion stage of the conflict, but the next phase - involving insurgencies and guerilla raids - is what has bogged us down. The insurgency/guerilla phase will likely prove problematic for Ethiopia regardless of their level of brutality or willingness to slaughter civilians en masse.

Ralph Peters, who has for some time been urging our military leaders to adopt policies designed to maximize enemy casualties regardless of the collateral effects on civilian populations, has been, predictably, endorsing the Ethiopian approach. Nevertheless, Peters acknowledges that an insurgency could be brewing, even if he does so with an analogy to our Iraq experience that doesn't quite deliver what he intends:

Now the media line is that it was all a plan, that the Islamists intended all along to fight a guerrilla war. Sure, right. We've heard this one before, folks: The same pundits argued that Saddam never intended to fight a conventional war, but had always planned to hide in a hole in the ground while his sons were killed so he could eventually be dragged out by our troops and hanged by his own people.
To which I would reply: huh? Whether or not Saddam planned to conduct an insurgency operation (there is evidence pointing both ways), an effective insurgency arose regardless. In one sense, the potential for lasting counterinsurgency success in Somalia would appear stronger if Saddam had in fact done the extensive insurgency planning that Peters dismisses: after all, if an effective insurgency can emerge ex nihilo, without preparation as in Peters' version of Iraq, then it likely could do so in Somalia as well. I'd rather think that it was Saddam's brainchild, and thus can't be repeated so easily.

But here's the upshot: it is unclear the extent to which Ethiopia would be bothered by the prospect of a roiling insurgency/civil war in neighboring Somalia either way. Sure, Ethiopia would likely continue to take shots at the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) faction from a safe redoubt in those portions of Somalia controlled by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) - or Ethiopian territory itself - but they're not going to pour blood and treasure into Somalia in order to better the political situation in a nation that has been their frequent rival. Destabilizing Somalia, and leaving it wracked with violence and disorder, is a feature not a bug - at least for the Ethiopians. Gary Brecher captures the sentiment with his usual irreverant style:
If the only force holding the [TFG] "government" up was its own fighters, Baidoa would have fallen to the Islamists long ago....

Luckily, Ethiopia is standing behind the [TFG] government because the last thing the Ethiopians want is a strong, Islamic Somalia. In fact, Ethiopia doesn't really want there to be a Somalia at all. They say that Somalia's occupying what ought to be Ethiopian land, the Ogaden. The two countries already went to war over it in 1977 -- usual African result, no winners and lots of dead bodies. The Ethiopian leaders know Somalia very well, because most of them lived in Somalia before they overthrew Mengistu.

Ethiopia already lost its other potential coastline to Eritrea, the Prussia of Africa, and they're damned if they're going to watch the last bit of ocean-view property fall into the hands of some sleazy worry-bead fingering Mullah-slash-condo developer. So they're propping up this useless excuse for a government, and we're helping them...
This is not to say that the Ethiopians have no legitimate gripes with the ICU. The potential for the ICU to stoke Muslim unrest in Ethiopia is real, and the ICU has threatened Ethiopia with jihad and other territorial expansions - even if Ethiopia's protests about the seriousness of Somalia's military threat have been shown to be considerably overblown by the ease of Ethiopia's recent military defeat of the supposed forces of aggression. Further, the fact remains that Ethiopia's interests in invading Somalia might have more to do with regional politics and long-standing border disputes than any perceived threat from the ICU. In addition to the relative weakness of Somalia's military threat, it becomes harder to argue that Ethiopia moved against the ICU in order to quiet Muslim unrest in Ethiopia when such aggression could likely result in exactly the opposite.

Further, we should acknowledge that the Islamist specter is a convenient one for Ethiopia. It can be wielded as a means to elicit our highly-coveted support, regardless of Ethiopia's ultimate ambitions vis-a-vis Somalia. This does not necessarily mean that there is no real threat of al-Qaeda infiltration in Somalia. It's just that while we are much more focused on disrupting potential al-Qaeda movements in the region, and the possible collaboration between al-Qaeda and ICU leadership, Ethiopia might not have such noble intentions. This could lead to a serious divergence in preferred tactics and strategies at some point down the line.

The always informative Jonathan Edelstein also has a nice summary of the dynamic at play. After offering a possible best-case-scenario outcome, Edelstein shares his pessimism:

Finally, neither Ethiopia nor the Islamists have an interest in allowing regional peacekeeping to take hold. Ethiopia has its own security interests in Somalia, including its allegations that the Islamists are supporting the generation-old Oromo rebellion and its fear that a resurgence of pan-Somali nationalism might reopen the Ogaden conflict, and it's unlikely to take a chance on free elections or a TFG collapse bringing the judiciary back to power. In the meantime, the remaining Islamist militias have no obvious interest in allowing the TFG to consolidate its authority, and although they have been driven out of their strongholds, an unknown number managed to cross the Kenyan border or go underground within Somalia. Given all this, it's hardly surprising that TFG prime minister Ali Mohammed Gedi is rejecting amnesty for SICC leaders and suggesting that Ethiopian troops might stay for months, or that Islamist gunmen have already carried out guerrilla attacks against Ethiopian forces.

So on balance, I'd still rate the most likely outcome as a sham Ethiopian withdrawal followed by an extended counterinsurgent conflict, with the TFG remaining ineffectual and internally divided while the Islamist militias wage a guerrilla struggle with substantial public support. This, in turn, will ensure that Eritrea continues to support local proxies against the Ethiopians, and that fighters from the greater Middle East will continue to be attracted by the widely reported (albeit erroneous) portrayal of the conflict as one pitting Somali Muslims against Ethiopian Christians. And needless to say, a prolonged counterinsurgency is the type of conflict that nobody wins, with major impact on regional food security as well as widespread death and displacement. Somalia deserves better, but there are too many forces converging toward the opposite to provide much room for optimism.
Eric Margolis sees a similar outcome:

...a prolonged conflict would seriously undermine [Ethiopia's] fragile economy. Accordingly, Ethiopia’s likely strategy is to protect the western-imposed rump regime in Baidoa and launch attacks to prevent the UIC from consolidating power. But involvement by traditional enemy Ethiopia will undoubtedly further inflame Somali passions and strengthen the Islamic Courts. The latest war in the Horn of Africa could easily widen into a wider conflict that involves Eritrea, strife-torn regions of southern Sudan and Uganda, and northern Kenya, which has many ethnic Somalis.

Equally important, prolonged war with Somalia could open fissures in unstable, multiethnic, multi-religious Ethiopia. Though usually depicted as a Christian nation, at least 50 percent of Ethiopians are Muslim, and 35–40 percent Christians. Ethnic Amhara and Tigrayans comprise 32 percent of the population, while long-oppressed, rebellious Muslim Oromo in the south account for over 40 percent. [...]

Ethiopia’s war against Somalia presents a more dangerous regional threat than an Islamic-run Somalia. The Bush/Cheney Administration is again showing its reckless ignorance and arrogance by charging into a tribal conflict, as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq, about which it knows nothing. Once again, Washington’s "cure" will be shown to be far worse than the disease it claims to address.

What Washington should be doing is talking to leaders of the Islamic Courts to ensure Somalia is not used as a new base for al-Qaeda operations. This is a fair request that can be sweetened by offers of financial support and assurances the Ethiopians will be leashed. But this appears too subtle for the administration’s ham-handed crusaders who have already blundered into two lost wars and are now courting a third.
The advisability of our involvement in this conflict hinges on the plausibility of the suggestions in that final paragraph, their ability to accomplish the desired outcomes, as well as the credibility of the evidence of al-Qaeda's presence in Somalia pre-Ethiopian incursion. In Part III, I'll attempt to take a closer look at those issues.

Regardless, though, we should be mindful of the partner we have chosen to ride shotgun in this affair: Ethiopia is headed by a repressive regime that is no paragon of democracy, freedom or enlightened altruism. It has regional ambitions that should not be overlooked. Ethiopia doesn't fit well within the tidy good vs. evil narrative so preferred by certain pundits. Portraying Ethiopia as a well-intentioned and concerned onlooker interested in the betterment of Somalia's fragile political condition would be willful ignorance. Ignoring the conflict of interest inherent in Ethiopia's intervention would be foolhardy.

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