January 06, 2007

War in Somalia

I still don't quite know what to make of Ethiopia's recent invasion of Somalia. Does anyone? Jonathan Edelstein lays out a few possible scenarios now that Ethiopia has driven the ruling Islamic Courts Union out of power and ushered the warlords from the transitional government back in. Here's his prognosis:
I'd still rate the most likely outcome as a sham Ethiopian withdrawal followed by an extended counterinsurgent conflict, with the [transitional government] remaining ineffectual and internally divided while the Islamist militias wage a guerrilla struggle with substantial public support.

This, in turn, will ensure that Eritrea continues to support local proxies against the Ethiopians, and that fighters from the greater Middle East will continue to be attracted by the widely reported (albeit erroneous) portrayal of the conflict as one pitting Somali Muslims against Ethiopian Christians. And needless to say, a prolonged counterinsurgency is the type of conflict that nobody wins, with major impact on regional food security as well as widespread death and displacement.
Oh, good. Death and displacement. Anyone hankering for less gloom might want to read his other, more optimistic scenario, in which Ethiopia withdraws, Uganda sends in a peacekeeping force to support the transitional government, and the African Union starts disarming Somalia's heavily-armed clans and militias. Now, according to this morning's headlines, a bunch of Somalis started rioting and setting stuff on fire after being told they might have to turn in their assault rifles, so the odds look long for the sunny prediction, but take your pick.

Anyway, enough with predictions. I'm still trying to figure out how this war got going in the first place. The full story is long and complex, but here's one aspect that strikes me as either an appalling screw-up or something more sinister. In early December, recall, the Islamic Courts had taken control of most of Somalia, save for the town of Baidoa, where the transitional government had shacked up, protected by Ethiopian soldiers. That month, the United States pushed a resolution through the UN Security Council intended to bolster the transitional government—which had been considered an ally in the "war on terror" for quite some time.

The UN resolution partly lifted the arms embargo on Somalia, and authorized a regional force to protect the transitional government. Many Somalis interpreted it as legitimizing the 8,000 Ethiopian troops already in the country, and it seems plausible that it inflamed the situation, even though it technically barred Ethiopia from taking part in the peacekeeping force. (At the time, onlookers such as the International Crisis Group warned that it would lead to further conflict if passed.) Other Security Council members, such as Britain refused to cosponsor the resolution, finding it too inflammatory. Among other things, it came a week before the ICU and the transitional government were scheduled to meet for talks in Khartoum, effectively torpedoing that route.

One strange bit is how the resolution was passed in the first place. It came with an 90-page report from a Monitoring Group that built the case against Somalia's ruling Islamists. As best as I can tell, the group consisted of four observers who relied largely on Ethiopian and U.S. intelligence, and made a number of sensational claims that were disputed by experts—including a claim that the ICU had sent 720 fighters to fight alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon (how a relatively small militia struggling to maintain order at home could afford to send this many fighters abroad is unclear) and invited two Iranian agents to come look for uranium in exchange for arms.

Perhaps these claims are true. Then again, scare stories about U.S. foes don't have the best track record of late. But the State Department decided that negotiations with the ICU were out of the question, the UN resolution was passed, and Ethiopia eventually invaded. (Ironically, the Monitoring Group had warned strongly against loosening the arms embargo, also warning that it could lead to war.) That's not to say the UN Resolution caused the war, as Ethiopia had its own reasons for declaring the ICU a security threat, but it sure seems like the Security Council mishandled an opportunity to defuse the crisis.

(Many Ethiopians, for their part, believe the invasion mainly took place so that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi could "distract people from a vast array of internal problems and to justify further repression of opposition groups." Dubiousness all around.)

Anyway, who knows how this will all turn out? Perhaps a handful of Somalis will come to resent the United States' role in all this and sign up for jihad against the West. Or maybe the same warlords who spent decades trashing Somalia will put the country on a path to peace and stability. But I'm curious to know what people thought the UN resolution would accomplish, because it sure looks like it was a rather provocative move, rammed through the Security Council over serious objections, based on what looks like a fishy intelligence assessment. Maybe that's unfair. But I haven't seen much good reporting on what, exactly, the United States expected to happen.
-- Brad Plumer 12:40 PM || ||