U.S. policy on Somalia sowed seeds for chaos

by Gwynne Dyer

The U.S. decision in 2006 to send Ethiopian troops into Somalia was one of the stupidest moves in a very stupid decade. Last week, some of the chickens spawned by that decision came home to roost.

On Aug. 23, the al-Shabaab militia launched a “massive war” against the 6,000 African Union peacekeepers, most of them Ugandan, who are protecting the so-called government of Somalia. In reality, however, all it actually governs is a few dozen blocks in Mogadishu, and its members are just a group of Somali warlords and clan leaders who proclaimed themselves to be the “Transitional Federal Government” (TFG) in 2004.

Six “members of parliament” were among the 40 people killed when an al-Shabaab (The Youth) suicide squad stormed the al-Muna hotel in Mogadishu on Aug. 24, but there will be no by-elections to replace them. They were never elected in the first place. The TFG made no progress in reuniting the country, and now its surviving members sit surrounded by al-Shabaab fighters who control most of the sprawling capital.

Southern Somalia has been trapped in an unending civil war since the last real government collapsed in 1991, but the current round of killing was triggered when the United States invited Ethiopia to invade the country in 2006. This was a bit high-handed, especially since Ethiopia was Somalia’s traditional enemy, but Washington’s aim was to destroy the “Islamic Courts” in Somalia.

The TFG failed utterly to impose its authority and restore order in Somalia, but the Islamic Courts Union took a different approach. Its roots were in the merchant class in Mogadishu, who simply wanted a safer environment to do business in, and they understood that Islam was the only common ground on which all of the country’s fissiparous clans and militias might be brought together again.

The Islamic courts, applying Shariah law, were the instrument by which the society would gradually be brought back under the rule of law — and for about six months, it worked amazingly well. The zones of peace and order spread throughout southern Somalia, the epicenter of the fighting, and trade and employment revived. A made-in-Somalia solution had spontaneously emerged from the chaos.

Inevitably, some of the younger supporters of the Islamic Courts movement enjoyed ranting in public about the virtues of al-Qaida, the wickedness of Americans, and other matters of which they knew little. Almost every popular movement has a radical youth wing that specializes in saying stupid and provocative things. It is the job of the adults, inside and outside the organization, to contain their excesses and not to panic. Alas, the U.S. panicked, or at least its intelligence agencies did. The mere word “Islamic” set off alarm bells in the Bush administration, which had the lamentable habit of shooting first and thinking later.

Washington therefore concluded that the Islamic Courts Union, Somalia’s best hope of escaping from perpetual civil war, was an enemy that must be removed. Since the TFG was clearly not up to that task, Washington asked Ethiopia, Somalia’s old enemy, to provide the necessary troops.

Ethiopia agreed because it does not want stability in its old enemy, Somalia. The Ethiopians understood perfectly well (even if Washington did not) that the presence of their troops in Somalia would drive out the moderate leaders of the Islamic Courts Union and leave the country at the mercy of the crazies in the youth wing.

A prostrate and divided Somalia was clearly in Ethiopia’s long-term strategic interest, so why not? Especially since the U.S. financed the whole operation.

The Ethiopian troops invaded in late 2006 and the Islamic Courts Union was destroyed, leaving the field clear for the movement’s radical youth wing, al-Shabaab. Attacks on both the TFG and the Ethiopians multiplied, and civil war and chaos returned to Mogadishu. After two years the Ethiopians, having thoroughly wrecked any prospect of peace in Somalia, pulled their troops out and went home.

Since late 2008, only the 8,000 African Union troops in the country have kept alive the fiction of a Somali government friendly to the U.S., but al-Shabaab has now gone on the offensive. The two suicide bombs that killed 74 people in Kampala last month were a warning to Ugandans to bring their troops home from Somalia, and al-Shabaab is now trying to overrun the last small patch of Somali territory still held by the TFG.

Al-Shabaab is far more radical and anti-American than the Islamic Courts movement ever was, but the price of Washington’s stupidity will be paid mostly by Somalis. The Islamist fighters will probably not be able to control the whole of southern Somalia even if the African Union troops pull out. In any case, al-Qaida and its friends don’t need “bases”: conventional military operations do, but bases are virtually irrelevant in terrorist operations.

The northern half of former Somalia, ruled by the breakaway states of Puntland and Somaliland, is already at peace and will remain so. Southern Somalia will probably have to endure more years of violence and despair because Washington never understood that the Islamic Courts Union could be its tacit ally in stabilizing Somalia. But nothing particularly bad will happen to anybody except Somalis, so that’s all right.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.