A troubled start to 2007

I am by nature an optimist but frankly I do not see much good lying in wait in 2007. Peace shows no sign of breaking out anywhere.

In Sri Lanka, the conflict between the Tamil Tiger separatists and the government seems to be intensifying again, with the attempts at talks by the Norwegian mediators going nowhere.

The situation in Iraq shows no signs of easing and the idea of escalating the war there by sending in more US trooops seems to be the option that is being favored by Bush.

Afghanistan seems to be unraveling, with some analysts foreseeing increased strength for the Taliban and that the US will be defeated by the insurgency there.

All these things have been steadily worsening situations. What alarmed me over the break was a new conflict, the sudden invasion by Ethiopian troops into Somalia, to depose the government of the Union of Islamic Courts. At first blush, this seems like a regional conflict that has nothing to do with the US but in actuality the US is quite deeply involved in it and this recent development is not a good sign, since it indicates a further escalation.

somalia.gifTo understand what is involved there, we first need to look at the map, which immediately shows why the US is concerned about what goes on there. Somalia occupies a very strategic position on the horn of Africa. It overlooks crucial bodies of water (the Red Sea and Arabian Sea) across which lie Saudi Arabia and Yemen and the Gulf states.

Then we need to look at the history of the country. Somalia has been a country with an unstable government for some time, battling with its neighbor Ethiopia, suppressing secessionist movements, and subject to periods of being ruled by military coup leaders like Mohammed Siad Barre (1970-1991), and after he was overthrown, being in a state of near anarchy, with warlords and clan leaders battling for supremacy.

In 2004 a truce was cobbled together and a shaky transitional government was formed by the warlords, but it failed to establish any security or provide basic services. In June 2006, this transitional government was overthrown by an Islamist group that seized control of most of the country and the capital Mogadishu. It crushed the power of the warlords and set up the government called the Union of Islamic Courts and managed to bring some sort of order and security. In many ways, the UIC reminds me of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a group that advocates enforcement of a strict Islamic code on its people but is also able to provide security and basic services. It puts the Somali people in the tough position of having to balance the disadvantages of strict religious rules enforced in all aspects of life against the advantage of security and the promise of a reasonably ordered society.

It is the UIC government that was routed by the Ethiopian armies over Christmas. Its followers have dispersed but not disarmed. The Ethiopian armies have restored the fragile transitional government that was dominated by the corrupt warlords that was routed by the UIC six months earlier.

Here is the danger. It is clear that the Ethiopian government, which is pro-US and whose powerful military is supplied by the US, is acting as a proxy for the US in this conflict, although they have their own goals as well. But Ethiopia has its own internal ethnic problems as well as a long-standing border conflict with its northern neighbor Eritrea (which broke away from Ethiopia in 1993) and its government has a reputation for brutality. Furthermore, Ethiopia has had wars with Somalia in the past so they are not likely to been by the Somalis as a disinterested party.

The Ethiopians have indicated that they will stay in Somalia as long as the weak transitional government needs them but the history of what happens to foreign invading forces who don’t leave immediately is not a pleasant one, as we should have all learned from the bitter lessons of history but which countries seem to repeatedly ignore.

What happens if the UIC supporters, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, regroup and wage an insurgency against the Ethiopian forces, as they have threatened to do? There are already signs that this is their plan. The ability of the Iraqi insurgency to hold off the US forces cannot help but encourage them in the belief that they can do the same to the Ethiopians. If the Ethiopians start sustaining losses in a guerilla war, what are the options available to them and the US? Have the Ethiopians withdraw, allowing the UIC to regain power in a country that has great strategic value? Or reinforce support for the Ethiopians and give them the green light to unleash massive casualties in an attempt to eliminate all UIC sympathizers? Or even directly send in US forces? The US navy is already involved and acting in concert with Ethiopian forces.

The ethnic and religious and clan politics of Somalia is, if you can imagine it, even more complicated than in Iraq. (See this excellent analysis of the Somali situation by Eric Margolis. Justin Raimondo also provides some useful background and history.) By throwing its support behind the corrupt and warlord-backed transitional government (the very warlords who were behind the killing of 18 US troops in 1993 that was dramatized in Black Hawk Down), the US has reversed course, deciding that the warlords it once opposed and hunted down are now its friends, or at least preferable to the Islamists.

If there is one lesson that Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught is to tread very warily into the sectarian disputes of other countries. The US in its seeming determination to prevent an Islamic government emerging in the strategic horn of Africa has, through its proxy Ethiopia, got involved in another dangerous and volatile situation that does not look at all good for the future.

I fear that the people of Somalia are going to end up like the beleaguered people of Afghanistan, constantly buffeted by outside powers in a geostrategic game. And the US is opening up a third front of involvement in an Islamic country even while the other two fronts are going badly.

Not a good way to start 2007.

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