Saturday, May 03, 2008

The US and war in Somalia

Somalia (CIA World Factbook map)

This past week, the US made another air strike on Somalia. From the fact that the terrorist leader, Aden Hashi Ayro - who most people in the United States had surely never heard of - was reported killed by his own group, al-Shabab - which most people in the US had also never heard of - I would assume for now that the target of this targeted assassination was killed.

The following reports provide details of the story: U.S. kills Al Qaeda-linked militant, but elsewhere terrorism grows by Scott Peterson and Rob Crilly Christian Science Monitor 05/02/08; US airstrike kills head of al-Qa'ida in East Africa by Steve Bloomfield Independent 05/02/08; U.S. missiles kill al Qaeda chief in Somalia, 10 others by Mohamed Olad Hassan AP/San Francisco Chronicle 05/02/08; Attack on Terror Target Sheds Light on Somalia's Instability PBS Newshour 05/01/08. This story from 2007 provides additional background U.S. Involvement in Somalia PBS Newshour 01/26/07.

The US is involved in a proxy war in Somalia, and is even intervening directly, as in this targeted assassination. Not surprisingly, the Cheney-Bush administration claims they were attacking "Al Qa'ida", which the Republicans like Maverick McCain are increasingly using as a catch-all term for an endless sea of enemies, not just the terrorist band headed by Osama bin Laden. The tactic of targeted assassination itself, though a standard practice of Israeli counterterrorism operations and therefore assumed by many Americans to be effective, is problematic in itself. Getting rid of the old leader doesn't necessarily ensure that what comes afterward will be better, for instance.

Congress, the media and the public should also be paying more attention to this. A tangential involvement in a situation like Somalia may sometimes make sense. But "mission creep" is always a big risk.

One consequence of the civil war in Somalia, which is also now mixed with an anti-occupation resistance against Ethiopian troops in Somalia, has been to create an enormous humanitarian crisis. This is one of many things that can draw the US deeper and deeper and spread our military commitments more and more thinly in locations and situations that may really be marginal to American interests.

The 05/01/08 Newshour report puts the action in a context rarely seen in American news reports. An Islamic regime took power in Somalia in 2006. The US then encouraged Ethiopia, a primarily Christian nation, to intervene in Somalia and oust the "Islamic Courts" regime, as it was called. Ethiopia did so, and briefly became a heroic image for our Republican war-lovers, who pointed to the Ethiopian army as an example of how the US should kick butt.

If any of them are still paying attention, there may have been more to learn from Ethiopia's action than just the fact that they quickly succeeded in ousting the undesired regime and installed an Ethiopia-friendly one. As ITV reporter Jonathan Miller reports on the Newshour:

Ethiopia invaded Somalia with America's blessing at the end of 2006 to oust a short-lived Islamist government. Since then, the country's descended further into madness.

The Islamists are now the insurgents. ...

The Somali Mujahideen, proud to have been designated a terrorist organization by the United States of America, they're now an official franchise of al-Qaida central. Al-Shabab, as they're known, are battling what they call the "infidel Christian occupier, Ethiopia," and what they brand its puppet regime.

Somalia has become a magnet for global jihadis. In 15 months, 750,000 of Mogadishu's residents have fled. If this had happened anywhere else, one U.N. head of mission says, it would have triggered international outrage. Instead, all it's triggered is the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe. (my emphasis)
So, did the Ethiopian intervention prevent a new "state sponsor of terrorism" from securing its rule? Or did it create a situation where new jihadis are being trained, where Al Qa'ida is expanding its prestige and maybe its actual organaization, generate a humanitarian disaster, and further inflame Arab and Muslim public opinion against the US for backing a black Christian nation (Ethiopia) in invading and occupying an Arab Muslim nation (Somalia)?

Andre Le Sage of the National Defense University told the Newshour:

.. we do have to recognize that al-Shabab has really become the hard-line faction, targeting international aid workers, preventing humanitarian assistance from arriving in Somalia, targeting international journalists that have been there, and also targeting peacemakers, Somali peacemakers that are trying to broaden the base of the transitional federal government. ...

Al-Shabab is a very diverse movement, and I don't think we can talk about it as a single, hierarchical organization.

Since the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, al-Shabab and the insurgency itself has splintered. And it really covers much of southern Somalia at this point. It operates in various pockets where it's able to find support and it's able to find refuge. And it is providing protection for the al-Qaida East Africa cell.

I think we need to recognize the importance of this. Al-Shabab on its own is a major threat in the Somali context. It becomes an international threat, a threat to international peace and neighboring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, by providing succor to al-Qaida's East Africa cell.
Even La Sage's comment here, which refers to an undefined "East Africa cell" of Al Qa'ida, gives an idea of the complexity of this particular guerrilla movement, which certainly doesn't sound like some unified body under the command-and-control of Bin Laden from his cave in Bumrush, Pakistan or wherever he is.

Ahmed Samatar of Macalester College adds:

I think the issue in Somalia, really, in the fundamental sense, is not about al-Shabab or a particular militant group. That's really the top soil.

Deep underneath, the real question is the reclamation of Somali national identity, and history, and institutions. There's a national resistance movement going on in Somalia. And the focus of that national resistance movement is that Somali transitional federal government, which was created by the Ethiopian government, that really has no legitimacy, nor does it have any competence, and then, of course, the Ethiopian invasion.

Invasion by itself is a very violent business, and the Somali people are responding to that in a variety of ways, and al-Shabab are one of those responses.
Miller's portion of the Newshour report gave an illustration of how invasion and the subsequent occupation can be quite violent:

In the latest round of fighting, more than 200 civilians reportedly wounded, the last count, at least 120 killed, many women and children among them.

Even those who've survived 17 years of civil war here say it's never been this bad.

Outside, the damaged homes of Hassan and his little brother and all those who'd made it to Madina Hospital last week, Mogadishu looking ever more like a ghost town.

Local people say Ethiopian and Somali troops [of the Ethiopian-allied government] rampaged through this residential neighborhood looking for Islamist insurgents following an attack on their base. They left death and destruction in their wake.
The Newshour report of 01/26/07 is interesting to see here 15 months later:

As part of the global war on terror, the United States has followed a policy in Somalia - through both military operations and diplomatic efforts with the international community - to prevent the lawless country from becoming a haven for terrorists.

Working in conjunction with Ethiopia in early 2007, the United States used military force in Somalia for the first time since 1994 in an attempt to kill terrorist suspects hiding in the south. Officials confirmed a second airstrike two weeks later.

The first U.S. airstrike on Jan. 8 followed a swift Ethiopian intervention in late December 2006 that drove the Islamic Courts Union, suspected of harboring al-Qaida members, into the mangrove swamps of southern Somalia.

Kenyan troops - also working in military cooperation and sharing intelligence with the Americans - sealed off their border with Somalia while U.S. Navy ships patrolled the coast to cut off escape routes by water.

The effort revealed a high level of cooperation between the United States and its regional allies - especially Ethiopia - and, for the first time, a U.S. base in Djibouti was used to conduct military operations. (my emphasis)
At that time, we had just had a victory for Our Side in pursuit of the US policy "to prevent the lawless country from becoming a haven for terrorists". What could be wrong with that?

Now Jonathan Miller reports, "Somalia has become a magnet for global jihadis." Which of course, means they are now an important front in the Global War on Terror, right? This is how mission creep is occurring for the US in Somalia. In practice, it's considerably harder to get out of these situations than to get into them.

As Peterson and Crilly report for the Christian Science Monitor, the State Department's most recent report on terrorism focuses on our ally Pakistan as the place where Al Qa'ida is having its most important success in reconstituting itself. It's unclear to me how getting ourselves more and more deeply involved in the civil war and anti-occupation resistance in Somalia is a sensible use of American power at this point.

The most recent State Dept. Country Reports on Terrorism 2007 was released on April 30. Somalia is discussed in Chapter 2, on Africa:

Somalia's fragile central government, protracted state of violent instability, long unguarded coastline, porous borders, and proximity to the Arabian Peninsula made the country an attractive location for international terrorists seeking a transit or launching point for conducting operations in Somalia or elsewhere. Despite the late 2006 defeat of the Council of Islamic Courts (CIC) in Mogadishu by Ethiopian and Transitional Federal Government (TFG) forces, the ensuing low-level conflict [bureacratese for "guerrilla warfare"] that engulfed Mogadishu and parts of south central Somalia for the remainder of the year continued to make Somalia a permissive operating environment and safe haven for both Somali and foreign terrorists. The extremist al-Shabaab (The Youth), the militant "shock troops" of the CIC whose radicalism and violent means led to the CIC's undoing, initially dispersed and fled south along the Kenyan border. Al-Shabaab, some of whom are affiliated with AQ, consists of radicalized young men, between 20 and 30 years of age. A few of its senior leaders are believed to have trained and fought with AQ in Afghanistan. Al-Shabaab extremists participated in attacks against Ethiopian and TFG security forces. Al-Shabaab and other extremists were also behind suicide bombings, the use of landmines, remote controlled roadside bombs, and targeted assassinations against Ethiopian and TFG security forces, other government officials, journalists, and civil society leaders. The African Union Peace Support Mission (AMISOM), which deployed in March to secure the air and sea ports and presidential compound, lost six soldiers to extremist attacks during the year.

Among the foreign AQ operatives believed to have enjoyed protection by the former CIC and al-Shabaab leadership were individuals wanted for the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania and a 2002 hotel bombing in Kenya, including Fazul Abdallah Mohammed (aka Harun Fazul), and Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan. At the end of the year, Ethiopian and TFG forces remained nominally in control of Mogadishu and southern and central Somalia, though institutions of government remained weak and ineffective. Regional efforts to bring about national reconciliation and establish peace and stability in Somalia are ongoing. The capability of the TFG and other Somali local and regional authorities to carry out counterterrorism activities was limited. (my emphasis)
So, our Ethiopian-backed intervention has generated a guerrilla war aimed at Ethiopia and the pro-Ethiopian Somali government, the government itself is weak and ineffecitive, and the internal strife "continued to make Somalia a permissive operating environment and safe haven for both Somali and foreign terrorists".

By Cheney-Bush standards, that would constitute "Mission Accomplished". But how those results actually help American interests is very unclear to me.

The administration made a big point of the supposed connection between Aden Hashi Ayro and those people supposedly involved in the bombing of the American embassy in Kenya a decade ago to established a direct American interest in targeting him for assassination. I haven't noticed in any of the news reports any evidence that the individuals supposedly involvled in the Kenya bombings were affected in any way by this targeted assassination last week.

Peterson and Crilly also note:

US special forces have been operating around Somalia's borders; Mr. Ayro survived an airstrike last year. Indeed, Thursday's airstrike was the fifth by the US since the 2006 collapse of the short-lived Union of Islamic Courts (UIC)government. David Shinn, former US ambassador to Ethiopia, says it appeared to be the first to take out a key target, though he question edits impact.

"This development is going to undermine the ability of the Shabab to carry out attacks in Somalia until they can reorganize themselves," he says. "But I just don't see it having animpact on overall peace in Somalia."
So: We're carrying out air strikes against a country with which we are not formally at war and whose nominal government is supposedly friendly to us. We're 1-4 in the number of these brilliantly targeted high-tech assassination operations that actually took out their intended targets, possibly all of which blew up civilian noncombatants. The guy we apparently did kill on Thursday was a bad guy who seems not to have been targeting American interests in any direct way. Since he's dead, he can't give us any information about those Kenya embassy bombers he was supposedly connected with in some way.

This just does not look very impressive to me.

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