"It was totally the law of unintended consequences in the extreme."
- John Prendergast
6,000-8,000 Ethiopians and 2,000 fully equipped Eritrean troops are inside Somalia prepared to face off in a violent regional conflict, the UN recently warned
Ethiopia is backing the weak Somali Transitional Government
near Baidoa that holds no real power in Somalia. Uganda and Yemen are throwing in resources to Ethiopia's side. Eritrea is backing the Supreme Islamic Courts Council
which controls most of southern Somalia. Libya, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states are supporting the Islamic movement. Clashes have already erupted between the autonomous region of Puntland and the Islamic Courts.
How did this approaching disaster happen?
It started in the mostly unlikely of ways - a fight over a worthless patch of scrub land
just outside of Mogadishu by two clan warlords on January 13. It required the complete incompetence of the Bush Administration to turn this nonevent into a war that could kill tens of thousands and destabilize the entire region.
Making a mountain out of a molehill
Our story begins with two warlords from the Abgal sub-clan. One warlord is named Bashir Raghe
. He was a waste contractor with the U.S. military forces in Mogadishu before the United States pulled out in 1994. After 9/11 he became one of America's top allies in Somalia. He was paid handsomely to capture alledged terrorist and turn them over to U.S. officials.
Raghe strode through Mogadishu wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses on his head and a pistol strapped to each hip. And in the months leading up to the fighting in Mogadishu, he was seen using crisp, new $100 bills to buy machine guns and heavily armed pickup trucks.
The rival warlord is named Abukar Omar Adan, a devoutly Islamic and heavily armed clan elder with ties to the Islamic Courts Union (now named Supreme Islamic Courts Council).
The trouble began late last year when Adan paid $30,000 for land that straddled the airport road, intending to build a development including homes and warehouses.
Fearing the loss of control over lucrative airport traffic, Raghe objected, according to Adan's brother and son. After several verbal confrontations, the two sides began fighting in the open Jan. 13, moments after the U.S. intelligence officials -- most accounts put the number at four -- had landed at Esaly.
After a six hour battle Raghe's forces had killed seven of Adan's men and captured the land and four of his gun trucks. The U.S. officials, at the airstrip just three miles away, wrongly concluded that they were under attack by Islamic terrorists and abruptly fled. Adan had no idea the Americans were nearby, but soon learned of it.
Adan travelled to Nairobi to reassure the Americans that the gunfight was about land, and to ask for his trucks back.
But over the next several weeks, in numerous discussions in person and on the phone, U.S. officials accused Abukar and his family of being terrorists, he said. "They said, 'You were ready to kill us.' . . . They said, 'Your file will be put in Washington, and you will be recorded as a terrorist group.' "
A third Somali, speaking on condition of anonymity, recounted a separate but similar conversation with a U.S. intelligence official who said of the officers at the airstrip on Jan. 13: "They were ambushed. This was a terrorist who was trying to kill American officers."
The Bush Administration couldn't let a terrorist attack go by unanswered, and so began funding regional warlords, including Raghe. These were some of the exact same warlords that killed American soldiers
in 1993. Anti-Americanism, stoked by the Iraq War, intensified in Mogadishu. Warlords had been raping, robbing and killing for over a decade, and now they were being funded by the Bush Administration. Public opinion swung in favor of the islamic courts, which were originally created as a judicial system by regional businessmen, but gradually became a local police force, and even provided services such as education and health care.
On February 18, Raghe and at least six other warlords created the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism
(ARPCT). Four of the warlords were also part of the Somali Transitional Government. American support money flooded into this group, estimated at about $100,000 a month. However, the popular reaction
was even more swift. Battles between homegrown Islamic militias and a hated U.S. proxy force started the very same day.
Only a few months ago, this would have been impossible for lack of public support, experts said.
But the US support for the warlord Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism -- hated by the population -- sparked a wave of anti-American sentiment that massively boosted support for the Islamists, they said.
Karin von Hippel, a former UN expert on Somalia and member of the US Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that by backing the warlords, Washington encouraged the Islamic courts to take up arms.
A month later the forces of Adan and Raghe met again. This time Adan was backed by the islamic courts, and the ending was very different
. Raghe's forces were routed despite the backing of American military aid. It was the start of the blowback against Bush's Somalia policy. On May 7th an outright war began between the U.S. backed warlords and the islamic courts, and by June 5th the warlords had been driven from Mogadishu. A few weeks later Raghe and another warlord fled to a waiting American warship
. The fighting had cost about 350 lives. And as you might imagine, the Bush Administration, in its usual "sour grapes" moment, has ruled out any contact
with the new leader of Somalia.
But this was not the end. It was mearly the start.
Chairman Sharif Sheikh Ahmed
The UIC followed the fleeing warlords to the nearby towns of Jowhar and Hobyo and quickly captured them. Most of the warlords fighters were now being put to work for the UIC. As the summer and fall grew long, so did the territory that the UIC has occupied. It has also created security and added services that a whole generation of Somalis haven't experienced.
In July the UIC organized a clean-up campaign - the first litter removal in Mogadishu in over a decade. That same month, the first commerical flight
left Mogadishu airport in a decade. In August the first ship docked
in Mogadishu harbor since 1991. On August 15, the UIC captured the coastal town of Haradhere and cleaned the pirates out of it. And just two days ago, the islamists stormed a ship that was captured by pirates
and returned it to its owners. The changes in Mogadishu have been startling
to say the least.
Things have never been so quiet, he says. Two weeks ago AK-47s sold for $550 as fresh fighting consumed the city. This week, he cannot move them for $350.
"Before, there were always two or three groups that I could sell to. Now there is just the Islamic courts and we are worried that they will bring peace here and put us out of business," he says.
The islamists have also cracked down on the illicit drug trade, sale of endangered birds, and the indiscriminate logging of trees. You would think all of this would please everyone. You would be very mistaken.
Neocons do what is expected of them
Where did the Bush Administration get information that the UIC was harboring al-Qaeda terrorists? From the same warlords
who called themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) in order to get American taxpayer dollars from gullible neocons.
You have to remember that when the news media approached the Bush Administration about allegations of funds going to Somalian warlords, the first reaction by the Administration was to lie about their involvement
. Then, when diplomats in the State Department warned that the policy was misguided, those same diplomats had their careers cut short
Power Politics, African Style
"If something is not done now, the conflict may take on a regional dimension"
- United Nations envoy Francois Lonseny Fall
Shortly after the victory of the UIC in Mogadishu, a column of 100 Ethiopian trucks
crossed into Somalia, headed for Baidoa.
BBC African analyst Martin Plaut says the Ethiopian action puts the future of the transitional government in question.
Far from buttressing the administration, it may be the final blow to its credibility. Many MPs will not wish to serve in what will be seen as a puppet government, and observers believe they may leave Baidoa, he says.
That late-July warning was completely correct. Just two weeks later 40 ministers quit the transitional government.
"From today onwards, the government has been dissolved - only the prime minister will remain."
- President Abdullahi Yusuf
A new cabinet was formed, but only after intervention of Ethiopian Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin as mediator between the two factions in the Somali government.
This was only the start of the troubles for the transitional government. The following day a Baidoa warlord threatened the transitional government to leave Baidoa, or be thrown out. The government had to retake the regional airport by force from him.
Meanwhile the transitional government has asked the UN for an army of peacekeepers, which it has approved. However, the UIC has opposed it. Then in late October, the Ethiopian troops went on the offensive
, and captured a minor town called Burahakaba. A couple days later the SICS took it back.
Then on October 24, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced that "technically" that his country is at war
with the SICS. "The jihadist elements within the Islamic Court movement are spoiling for a fight. They've been declaring jihad against Ethiopia almost every other week," Meles said. "Technically we are at war."
He is correct that the SICS has called for jihad against Ethiopia. But that was only after Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia. Ethiopia only recently admitted to having any troops in Somalia, and says they are only there for "training purposes". There have been massive protests
in Mogadishu against the Ethiopian troops.
Meanwhile refugees are fleeing Somalia in the face of the coming war. Already 30,000
have entered Kenya this year, on top of the tens of thousands previously there.
Meanwhile proposed peace talks between the UIC and the transitional government have collapsed
. The sticking point is the presence of the Ethiopian troops. The UIC refuses to even talk about peace while the foreign troops are in Somalia.
But why is Ethiopia doing this? Why is Ethiopia invading Somalia?
The past year has not been kind to the Ethiopian government. After fixed elections that allowed Mr. Zenawi to win a third term, the government began a crackdown on the opposition. In response, the US Congress passed a bill branding the government as undemocratic and an abuser of human rights. Additionally, international donors have stopped the flow of cash to the Ethiopian government, and have not been in contact with the regime for several months. The loss of aid has hurt, as Ethiopia is one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world.
But an anti-Islamist war in Somalia would enable Zenawi to position himself as a key ally in the war on terror. Zenawi reasons that if his country plays an essential role in supporting Somalia's transitional government against the UIC, the United States will provide economic and diplomatic support, despite other objections to Ethiopia's policies. All Zenawi has to do is wait for civil war in Somalia to reignite - an outcome made more likely by his deployment of troops.
Historically, Ethiopia and Somalia have fought wars and have tribal claims that extend beyond their borders. In 1977 Somalia invaded Ethiopia in the Ogaden War
. Ethiopia repulsed the invasion with the help of the Soviet Union.
Meanwhile in the rest of Somalia...
Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed
Somalia is in reality three countries now. One of them is divided between the SICS and the puppet government that Ethiopia supports. The region directly to the north is called Puntland
. It is an autonomous region that formed in 1998 and is directly supported by the government of Ethiopia, but isn't trying to become independent. The region was formed under Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, who refused to step down when his term was up in 2001. This led to rebellions that continued until 2004, when he resigned to become President of Somalia in the transitional government. He recently survived an assassination attempt.
Last week clashes erupted
between Puntland and the UIC. This is only two weeks after the UIC proposed new islamic courts
for Puntland. Two days later, forces from Puntland attacked again.
Somaliland, unlike Puntland, is trying to become independent of Somalia. There have been claims that the UIC is sending agents
into Somaliland, but this has not been proven.
The Bush Administration, after hitting this hornet's nest with a stick, has run away and left the region in growing chaos. What can be done?
Most likely it would require some leadership from the UN. The Bush Administration is poison at this point, and anything else it touches with wither and die. Hopefully Ethiopia will pull back and let Somalia find its own way to peace.