LONDON — It has the makings of a perfect storm extending right across the Horn of Africa. The 15-year war of all against all in Somalia is threatening to morph into an international war bringing chaos and disaster to the rest of the region, and the al-Qaida-obsessed “securocrats” in Washington are the ones to blame.
The Somalis have nobody to blame but themselves for their basic plight. Although Somalia has only one ethnic group, one language and one religion, its people are deeply divided by clan, and when long-ruling dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, the clan leaders were unable to unite and form a new government. Instead, the country fell into civil war and anarchy.
A U.S.-led military intervention in 1992 tried to restore order, but after 18 American soldiers and a thousand Somalis were killed in a single day (the “Black Hawk Down” episode), U.S. forces pulled out. By 1995 all the other United Nations troops had followed, and Somalia was abandoned to its fate as a real-life version of the Mad Max films: no government, no police, no schools, no law, just the trigger-happy troops of rival warlords roaring around in “technicals,” pickups mounted with machine guns or anti-aircraft cannon, stealing and killing to their heart’s content.
But U.S. interest in Somalia reignited after the terrorist attacks of 2001, because as a Muslim country without a government it seemed a potential haven for Islamist terrorists. At first American policy concentrated on re-creating a national government, and by 2004 a transitional regime blessed by the United Nations and the African Union and led by one of the warlords, Abdulahi Yusuf, was installed in the town of Baidoa. But he was not in the capital, Mogadishu, because the three warlords who ruled that city rejected his authority. So did most other Somalis.
Meanwhile, a different kind of authority was emerging in Mogadishu: the Islamic courts. It was an attempt, paid for by local businessmen, to restore order by using religious law to settle disputes and punish criminals.
Each clan’s court has jurisdiction only over its own clan members, but it was a start on rebuilding a law-abiding society, and in 2004 they all joined to form the Union of Islamic Courts. Unfortunately, the mere use of the word “Islamic” spooked the U.S. government.
As usual, Washington’s response was mainly military. It decided that the Union of Islamic Courts was a threat, and in February CIA planes delivered large amounts of money and guns to the three warlords who dominated Mogadishu. They named themselves the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism, and started trying to suppress the UIC.
Rarely has any CIA plot backfired so comprehensively. Volunteers flooded in from all over southern Somalia to resist the warlords’ attack on the only institution that showed any promise of restoring law and order in the country.
By early June the last of the warlords had been driven out of Mogadishu, which is now entirely in the hands of the UIC, and for the first time in 15 years ordinary citizens are safe from robbery, rape and murder.
It is by no means clear that the UIC must fall into the hands of Islamist radicals who will turn Somalia into a safe haven for anti-American terrorists. Left to their own devices, the moderate majority of Somalis can probably ensure that what finally emerges is a moderate Islamic government with strong popular support.
But Washington panicked, and last week it let Ethiopia send troops in to protect the isolated “Interim Government” in Baidoa. That probably means renewed war, and across borders this time.
Ethiopia has five times as many people as Somalia and has already fought two border wars with it, in 1964 and 1977. (Somalia claims most of Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, where the people are mostly Muslim and ethnically Somali.) But now it’s more complex:
Ethiopia is a largely Christian country with big and restive Muslim minorities, and President Meles Zenawi is terrified that militant Islamists in power in Somalia might help those minorities to rebel, but this would not be happening without Washington’s consent. It is exactly the wrong response.
On June 10, Abdulahi Yusuf’s unelected “parliament” in Baidoa voted to seek foreign troops. On June 20 the first Ethiopian troops were spotted in Baidoa — and on the same day Sheik Mukhtar Robow, the UIC’s deputy head of security, declared: “God willing, we will remove the Ethiopians in our country and wage a jihad against them.”
Just when Somalia was about to escape from its long nightmare, a new and worse one has appeared: the prospect of a war that would consume the entire Horn of Africa (for Eritrea, teetering on the brink of another war with Ethiopia itself, is already sending aid to the UIC). The entire Horn of Africa could spend the next five years going through a catastrophe similar to what the Great Lakes region of Africa suffered in the later 1990s.
Sometimes you really wish that the State Department, rather than the Pentagon and the White House, ran American foreign policy.