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The United States, again

Wednesday 17 January 2007, by Najum Mushtaq

A day before U.S. planes struck suspected al-Qaida hideouts in Somalia, Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer spelled out in Nairobi the preferred order of leadership. “Some people would like the United States to lead on this issue,” she said. “I would prefer that we lead from behind, and what I mean by that is pushing the Somali people first, pushing the sub-region next, and then mobilizing the resources of the international community.”
But words from the Bush administration do not always mean what they say. More often, as with Ms. Frazer’s statement, they mean exactly the opposite.

Instead of the Somali people taking the lead in shaping the country’s future—a possibility Frazer alluded to in the wake of Ethiopia’s recent victory over the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and the return of the U.S.-backed interim government to Mogadishu on New Year’s Eve—the United States has again rushed in to take military action. Humanitarian concern for the ever-suffering people of Somalia did not motivate U.S. involvement. Rather, Washington’s ideological zeal and ill-conceived war on terrorism has led to this latest foray into yet another jihadi battleground.

U.S. Attacks

The first U.S. attack took place on January 8 on Ras Kamboni, on Badmadow Island. This area of livestock herders and religious schools close to the Kenyan border is a suspected training base for the Islamic militia as well as the reported destination of the core group of ICU leadership and militiamen fleeing Mogadishu and then Kismayo. Journalists based in Mogadishu report that instead of killing their targets—al-Qaida suspects implicated in the 1998 bombing of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam—the air strikes killed many civilian Somalis believed to have given shelter to the suspects.

The U.S. attack was executed in conjunction with land reconnaissance by Ethiopian, and possibly Kenyan, forces. Since the Ethiopian invasion, Kenya has deployed a large number of troops on the border to prevent the ICU militiamen, their families, and sympathizers from crossing over as refugees.

More attacks have since followed in what seems to be a series of strikes in hot pursuit of al-Qaida targets. Four civilians, including a small boy, died in a second attack west of Afmadow in a village called Hayi. With the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower joining three other warships already in the region, this new campaign is likely to be protracted. The longer it goes on, the more difficult it will become for the United States to disengage and the more fuel it will provide to jihad international to inflame Muslim emotions.

The Order of Intervention

During its six months of control over Mogadishu and most of the rest of south-central Somalia, the ICU stopped short of Baidoa, the base of the U.S.-backed transitional government. Amid simmering tension with the interim government, especially over the presence of Ethiopian forces, a UN Security Council resolution in December partially lifted the arms embargo to protect the interim government and authorized a protection force for Somalia. The new force is to be set up by the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, comprising troops from neighboring countries.

The resolution cornered the Islamic courts. Anticipating an onslaught from Ethiopia, the ICU became more aggressive in its rhetoric. The frequency of clashes between the two sides suddenly increased, leading to Ethiopian air strikes on Mogadishu on Christmas Eve. The Islamic militia abandoned the city without putting up a fight. Not only are the militias of the courts too weak militarily to take on the might of the U.S.-backed Ethiopian army in conventional land and air battles, they also suffered from internal dissension and defection. Now dispersed and underground, the leaders of the Islamic courts are gearing up for unconventional warfare against the 8,000-strong Ethiopian invasion force and other protection forces that might arrive to enforce the Security Council resolution.
Behind the diplomatic jargon of “peacekeeping” and “stabilizing force” lies the reality that the United States and its allies in the region have once again made a unilateral military intervention on the pretext of decimating al-Qaida. Like many other allies of the United States in its war on terrorism, notably the military-run Pakistan, the Tigrayan minority regime in Ethiopia is also exploiting the terror threat to gain international acceptance for its repressive rule and to divert attention from troubles at home.

Efforts are now on to replace the Ethiopians with a regional force. Whatever the composition of such a force—Uganda has promised 1,500 and others may follow—the past experience of peacekeeping in Somalia does not augur well for its prospects of success. As the south-central region once again reverts to the unruly reign of local warlords, clan militias, and general lawlessness, the artificially resuscitated interim government is as likely to bring the Somalis together and earn their support as the Maliki regime in Iraq or Karzai’s Kabul-bound government in Afghanistan.

The trajectory of the conflict, too, seems to be similar. A hurriedly assembled foreign force presides over violent local chaos. If the Islamic courts are further isolated and targeted, an insurgency as difficult to control as the Afghan Taliban may well arise. At least, al-Qaida and the more extremist leaders of the Islamic courts would want it to be that way.

Jihad Impossible?

The docile manner of the defeat of the ICU militia has prompted analysts and diplomats to underline the organizational and military weakness of the Islamic movement in Somalia. “I don’t see they’re in a position to regroup militarily, nor do I subscribe to the idea of Iraq- or Afghanistan-type suicide bombings—it’s simply not the Somali way of doing things,” said David Shinn, a former U.S. envoy to Ethiopia.

Like Shinn, other Somalia analysts also fall back on the argument that the Somali Muslims are not the suicide-bomber, al-Qaida terrorist types. Such a disturbing statement implies that extremists among the Afghans, the Pakistanis, the Palestinians, and the Iraqis are innately inclined to such terror tactics, whereas “it’s simply not the Somali way.” This line of analysis suggests that places like Palestine and Iraq, among others, have always been hatcheries of suicide bombers and terrorists, that there is something wrong with the kind of Islam practiced in those violence-ridden Muslim areas. Shinn and others have lost sight of the fact that no ethnic group or society is inherently prone to violence. Rather, it is the context in which they live that makes them so.

Also lost in this eulogy of the moderate ways of Somali clergy is the ever-increasing anti-Ethiopia and anti-U.S. public sentiment. Even today the Ethiopian troops are facing stiff public resistance, targeted by Somali gunmen in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Even if defeated militarily, dislodged from their strongholds, and hunted down on land, in the air, and at sea, the leaders of Islamic militia remain legitimate political actors. Their views on the invasion of foreign forces correspond with the antipathy of average Somalis toward Ethiopia and the United States.

Stoking the Fires

The direct U.S. military intervention in Somalia is ill-timed and ill-conceived. The aggressive U.S. posture, at sea and in the air, has antagonized the Somali people without any significant gain against suspected al-Qaida operatives or their Somali allies. In pursuit of a few individuals, the United States has earned the fury of the masses—in an eerie replay of Black Hawk Down. More importantly, the involvement of American forces seriously undermines Washington’s pious intentions of pushing the Somalis to the forefront of the process to stabilize the war-ravaged country. Once again, the Bush administration has proved that the tenets of international law and the norms of interstate relations can be flouted with dismissive arrogance whenever it wants to go into pre-emptive mode.

Moreover, by tarring all of the Islamic courts with the al-Qaida brush, the Bush administration has ostracized a major political faction within Somalia. The sympathizers and supporters of the ICU—and they are not an insignificant minority by any means—find themselves facing persecution and the same warlords they had gotten rid of not too long ago.

If the ultimate objective of peacekeeping forces is to create conditions for the initiation of an intra-Somali dialogue leading to some sort of a democratic process, then the Islamic movements cannot be cast side. Their participation in any future plan for Somalia, however, seems improbable given the mood in Washington and Addis Ababa. Their refusal to engage the Islamic movements will mean more violence and further instability in the region. Or perhaps once again the Bush administration’s words are misleading, and such instability is indeed the ultimate objective of America’s policy of containing and decimating Islamic extremism.

FPIF contributor Najum Mushtaq is a Nairobi-based journalist.

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