Unquiet Americans

The dissolution of Somalia into further violence thanks to Ethiopia's invasion of it in the last few weeks is a horrific development for East Africa. It's devastating to the perception of the United States abroad as well. Ethiopia said that, beyond a concern for the integrity of its borders, tacit U.S. support led it to invade Somalia. That support became even more explicit when the United States tried to capture Fazul Mohammed and two other alleged high level al-Qaeda terrorists Monday with military strikes in southern Somalia.

A State Department spokesperson told The New York Times that the Bush administration, in the Times's paraphrase, "was concerned about reports that the Islamists were using child soldiers and abusing Ethiopian prisoners of war." Thus the U.S. backing. It ought not require spelling out that the use of child soldiers and abuse of prisoners of war in Africa have never been much of a concern to the United States. In fact, Ethiopia's relationship with the United States is a strategic marriage of convenience.

The opportunity to eliminate an alleged al-Qaeda stronghold in a failed state was enough to garner U.S. support. Likewise, any excuse -- especially U.S. backing -- was enough for the Ethiopians to escalate their low-level fighting with Somalia. But the Islamic courts that took power there last year enjoyed the support of most Somalis, for ousting the powerful warlords from cities such as the former capital of Mogadishu and the strategic southern port of Kismayu. For the Islamists to be driven out at the hands of the United States and Ethiopia merely escalates the stakes and the prospects for violence. (The direct U.S. air strike only does so more.) The question is thus: why the U.S. support for Ethiopia's action now, and for what purpose?

Somalia's last functioning government, a socialist dictatorship led by Mohamed Siad Barre, was overthrown in 1991 by warlords who later turned on each other. After years of violence, the Islamists that the United States and Ethiopia are now opposing emerged in 2000. They eventually coalesced seven months ago into a government-like entity that ruled most of southern Somalia by Koranic law. The United States says it's after Mohammed and other terrorists tied to the bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 -- terrorists who are integral to the Islamists' leadership and who also have large price tags on their heads. But assisting the Ethiopians with driving out the Islamists is a mistake. The Islamists will likely revive their fighting as an insurgency, while the interim Somali government that formed from abroad years ago with the backing of the United Nations is going to garner little support, now that it has ridden in on Ethiopia's coattails with U.S. backing.

That new Somali government was officially installed in power by Ethiopia just before the start of the new year. It is, at best, a work in progress. The government is made up mostly of prominent political refugees from the nation, and its organization is suspect. Officials from different political factions have fought often in the past and so many voices have demanded inclusion that arguably no legitimate leadership exists. Ethiopians, for their part, are widely disliked in Somalia, on grounds of religious difference (Christian versus Muslim), historic battles between the two ancient nation states dating back thousands of years, and Ethiopia's more recent cross-border proxy battles there with its northern foe, Eritrea. The new Somali government's association with Ethiopia is therefore a worst-case template for stability.

Iraq and Afghanistan have made it abundantly clear that the United States can easily fail at stabilizing nations. Yet Somalia provides one of the best examples of U.S. ineptitude at these efforts. The desert landscape is often described by outsiders as a virtual no man's land, though Somalis have a distinctive culture and collective sense of self that dates back to Pharaonic Egypt. Roughly eight million Somalis speak the same language and share the same ethnicity. The brief colonization of much of Somalia by the British and then the Italians sparked one of the fiercest resistance efforts in all of Africa. The northern edges of the country, less divided along the blood lines and clan ties that wracked the south with violence, have established two government-like arrangements with virtually no outside support (the unacknowledged nation of Somaliland and the burgeoning state of Puntland).

Lack of understanding has long plagued outsiders' involvement in this country, including that of the United States. The film Black Hawk Down did little to contextualize the violent attacks on U.S. soldiers in 1993 that soon led to U.S. withdrawal from the country. (Several of their bodies were drug through the gravel and rock of Mogadishu.) The movie failed to mention the killing of four foreign journalists by Somali mobs, which occurred in part due to the somewhat misguided U.S. attacks that preceded it. The four journalists worked for Reuters' East Africa office, where I worked several years later. In October 1998, I was one of two Reuters journalists to return to the country for the first time since those deaths. Any journalist in East Africa then could tell you: the hundreds of Somalis mistakenly killed during a U.S. manhunt conducted early in Operation Rescue helped to foment and escalate the violence there that year.

In 2002, I reported on the similarly misguided U.S. policy of engagement with Eritrea, Ethiopia's northern neighbor. That situation turned out pretty badly for that nation, which has a more repressive government than ever before thanks in part to the U.S. turning a largely blind eye to its totalitarianism. Now, with the escalation of violence in Somalia, it's clear that if the United States had any legitimacy among everyday Muslims left, the situation there should squelch it.

After approximately a week of onslaught, the headlines already read by the start of the new year that the Islamists in Somalia faced defeat and capture. But surely Iraq has shown definitively -- if Afghanistan hadn't -- that early military "success" against militant Islamic fighters (who seem to "melt away" into the broader population) typically leads to an entrenched insurgency. Ethiopia's President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia has already told MPs in his country that he hopes to get out of Somalia in a few weeks, while the once foreign-based interim Somali government -- which, until now, had no control over the country -- says the Ethiopians might need to stay for months at least.

No one in East Africa wants another cross border conflict or outright war, especially not the ordinary people who suffer the brunt of the violence. At the moment, there are at least five conflicts killing thousands in East Africa. The mass murder in Darfur has crossed over to into Chad; Uganda's government battles northern rebels that seek respite in southern Sudan; the Democratic Republic of Congo's instability spills over into Rwanda and Burundi, which have their own stark ethnic divisions; and now, there's the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. If the United States wants to boost its support in East Africa and the rest of the planet, it might pay more attention to, say, the genocide in Darfur. But there's nothing the world needs less right now than U.S. fomented violence -- particularly in the name of battling Islamic fundamentalists.

Alex P. Kellogg writes for The Detroit Free Press.

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