Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Ethiopia's 'defensive' attack on Somalia

If a foreign political story gets big play in the 'independent' US mainstream media, chances are it's because of the priorities of the administration of the day. It's even more true if it's an African political story. The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia is one of those cases. One of the main stories on the Christmas Day front page of The Troy Record, a resolutely local New York paper, was about this war.

Not everyone considers Ethiopia's action an invasion. The internationally recognized Transitional National Government (TNG) of Somalia reportedly asked for Ethiopian military help in order to eject the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), whose militias controlled most of Somalia.

The TNG was formed during internationally mediated negotiations in Kenya and comprises mostly warlords who'd kept Somalia in anarchy during the previous 15 years. The TNG controls very little of Somalia and even in the parts it did control, its members were infamous for bribery and racketeering. While the TNG may have international recognition (for lack of a better alternative), it has almost no credibility within Somalia itself.

The UIC has been able to bring much needed stability to a chaotic former nation. It imposed some sort of order. It re-opened the port in Mogadishu, the nominal capital. In other words, it filled the security vacuum in a way that the TNG was unable to do. While some may fear the potential future actions of the Islamists, most Somalis appreciate that they can now walk the streets in relative safety. Many are concerned by both what war will bring and by what would happen if the warlord-dominated TNG ever truly controlled the country.

The Bush administration has condemned the UIC, claiming that they are controlled by al-Qaeda. Outside experts say that there may be some sympathy for al-Qaeda within the diverse UIC coalition but that the group is independent of outside control.

The Bush administration has backed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia though many fear that this will only further mistrust in the Muslim world about the west's intentions. Ethiopia, like the US, is a primarily Christian country and Somalia overwhelmingly Muslim.

Western diplomats and experts said that many Courts leaders, like most Somalis, are moderates and fiercely nationalist. For that reason and because of the complex tangle of clan allegiances within the courts, it's premature to conclude that the Islamists will impose a repressive Taliban-style Islamic regime aligned with bin Laden, they said.

The two countries have also fought a pair of wars in the past half century. Ironically, some observers think that the invasion of an old enemy might push Somalis to put aside clan differences and reignite nationalistic feeling against what the UIC is naturally portraying as a hostile foreign aggression.

This column in Kenya's Daily Nation (reprinted in The International Herald Tribune) expresses the widespread fear that the US proxy war in Somalia could destabilize the entire region.

Ethiopia and Eritrea remain tense after an insane, bloody border war. Eritrea backs the Islamists because Ethiopia opposes them. Some 240,000 refugees, mostly Somali, made their home on Kenyan soil in late September. That number is surely much higher now. The region of Kenya that borders Somalia has had its own troubles with famine even before the latest refugee influx.

Consciously mimicking President Bush's language, Ethiopia defended the invasion by stating that it was a pre-emptive measure against terrorists necessary for the country's security. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said, "As of today our defence forces have launched a counter-offensive, which is completely legal and proportional, on these anti-peace forces [the UIC]."

Prime Minister Meles added, "We are not trying to set up a government for Somalia, nor do we have an intention to meddle in Somalian internal affairs. We have only been forced by the circumstances."

Ethiopia's information minister added, "Ethiopian troops are fighting to protect our sovereignty from international terrorist groups and anti-Ethiopian elements,"

Despite claiming that the intervention was purely for its own security and not to meddle in Somali domestic affairs, the Ethiopian regime has announced that its forces will "besiege" the Somali capital Mogadishu until the UIC surrenders.

Mogadishu is on the Indian Ocean coast and thus about as far away from Ethiopia as you can get and still be in Somalia.


Update: a former US ambassador to Ethiopia points out that Ethiopia's interests (a weak Somali government with no real power or no central authority at all) and Somalia's interests (stability) are at odds.

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