Ethiopian army seizes Mogadishu. Does anyone outside of the Bush and Zenawi administrations think this was a good idea?

(Apologies that I’ve been absent the past few days. Events in my immediate world have demanded more attention than events in east Africa…)

What a surprise. I guess there were Ethiopian troops in Somalia after all.

Ethiopia had strenuously insisted that it had not “invaded” Somalia, and that its presence to support the provisional government in Baidoa was “advisory”.

Evidently some of those advisors brought tanks and airplanes with them. You know how it is… I hate leaving home without my laptop and mobile phone. And now the nations are at war.

Until quite recently, the provisional government controlled little beyond the town of Baidoa. The rest of southern Somalia was controlled by the Union of Islamic Courts. UIC had brought more stability to Mogadishu than had been seen in a decade, and the international press was expressing surprise that the city could return to comparative normalcy so quickly.

But not everyone has been thrilled by the rise of the UIC – some US policymakers have expressed concern that some members of the UIC may have Al-Qaeda ties. And US ally Ethiopia has strenously objected to the rise of an Islamic power on its eastern border. Ethiopia further worried that the UIC would lay claim to the Ogaden, which the countries have warred over before. And Ethiopia worries that Eritrea may be backing UIC forces, fighting a proxy war on Ethiopia’s southeast flank to complement border tensions on their shared border.

On December 20th, the UIC began attacking Baidoa, the only city the transitional government held. And announcements were made inviting foreign fighters to join the fight in Somalia… an action that made the US nervous, and let the Ethiopian government portray the UIC as inciting terrorism within its borders. It’s not a surprise that Ethiopia has struck back.

What is a surprise, to me at least, is that Ethiopia has seized this opportunity to “crush” the UIC and to take Mogadishu. Since the UIC has small arms and “technicals” – Toyota pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back – and the Ethiopian army has invaded with jet fighters and tanks, it’s not a real surprise that some or all fighters would choose to take off their green skullcaps and melt into the crowd, rather than be killed by Ethiopian troops in a straightforward military engagement.

The report from the NY Times seems to suggest that the UIC has “dissolved” – UIC fighters abandoned their checkpoints and disappeared into the crowd. The authors suggest that this dissolution may be permanent – as UIC lost battles to the Ethiopian army, warlords who’d been part of UIC demanded their vehicles and fighters back, which may have fatally crippled the UIC.

I find this analysis very hard to believe. Any guerilla commander, facing an overwhelming invasion, would get out of the way of Ethiopian tanks and wait to see how troops tried to hold the city. If Ethiopian troops leave Mogadishu and let the provisional government – in alliance with their preferred warlords – try to hold the city, I would expect UIC forces to emerge again and engage with the warlords, perhaps routing them as they did before. If Ethiopia remains in Mogadishu to help the provisional government hold the city – perhaps trying to move their center of operations from Baidoa to Mogadishu – I would expect major diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia, which invaded without authorization or support from any transnational entity. The AU has already demanded that Ethiopia – as well as any other foreign fighters – withdraw from the country immediately.

Abdurahman of “No Longer at Ease” offers the additional concern that Puntland, allied with the transitional government, might become another front for fighting. There have already been skirmishes between UIC forces and forces from Puntland, supporting the transitional government/Ethiopian forces.

As Ethiopian forces marched toward Mogadishu, Zenawi and his ministers were taking to the airwaves to announce that villagers were now free to watch cinema and listen to pop music again. They were also free to resume their addiction to qat, which the UIC had banned – qat sellers opened their booths almost immediately. Some media reports are claiming that the Ethiopian troops are being met with “cheers and flowers.” (This is all sounding hauntingly familiar to me, for some reason…)

Other reports suggest that Mogadishu is back to normal – that is to say, pre-UIC normal, which means looting, robbery and armed men roaming the streets. Ali Said Omar, writing to the BBC from Mogadishu, says:

Looting has been going on. Some of those involved freelance militia that were kicked out by the Islamists, but some are just opportunists, grabbing as much money as they can. Last night many, many people were robbed.

Speaking to people I did pass it seems as if our city is full of tears, waiting to burst. Most seem very worried, some terrified, waiting to know what to do.

He goes on to mention something that probably isn’t intuitively obvious to my American readers: the US is seen as the driving force behind this invasion.

No-one is giving much consideration to the transitional government as they are only being guided by the Ethiopians who are in turn are guided by the Americans.

If the government brings the previous warlords back then life will revert to how it was – the warlords will kill everyone to gain revenge on the people for supporting the Islamic courts. The people will be punished.

Two warlords escaped with the help of the Americans when the Islamists took over. Since 9/11 everything has changed… America used to be a dream for us.

But here the Ethiopians are hated more. You see – this is Somalia not Ethiopia. You do not have a right to come to another country and destroy civilians and say you are doing it to protect your own country.

People are comparing Ethiopia’s action to what America has done in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ethiopia is saying that Somalis are a threat to our security.

People here are very angry with Ethiopia and then secondly with America.

Somalis aren’t the only ones who see a US hand in these events. German newspaper Die Tageszeitung writes:

Washington is supporting the transitional government to prevent an Islamist victory. But the USA is employing the wrong means. It is supporting warlords who are hated among the population and the Americans believe they can use Ethiopia as a proxy to avoid having to use their own troops. That is simply idiotic. Ethiopia is Somalia’s archenemy, partly because of a territorial conflict. If Ethiopian troops enter Somalia it will drive even moderate Islamists into the Islamists’ camp.

While there are certainly moments when US foreign policy is “simply idiotic”, it’s possible that someone in the US State department understands that an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia is unlikely to make many friends in Mogadishu. The Kampala Monitor reports that the US has been reaching out to Uganda to act as a peacekeeper in Somalia, perhaps forcing Ethiopia into a more secondary (and less inflamatory) role. That said, statements from the National Security Council are being read as support by the US government for the Ethiopian invasion. In both statements by the NSC and from the State Department, connections between the UIC and Al-Qaeda were invoked.

It’s getting hard to defend my country from charges of “Islamophobia as foreign policy”. A country that’s seen very little peace in the past 15 years has just been destabilized by the army of a traditional enemy, commanded by a man who’s proved willing to have troops fire on unarmed civilians. It’s very unlikely that the invading army can hold the territory without a wider invasion, in which a Christian nation would occupy and hold a Muslim nation. The result, in the short term, is likely to be looting, violence and warlordism in a country that’s already been destroyed by fifteen years of the same. The long term consequences? Regional war is one possibility. An increased sense that the US is willing to sacrifice stability for any nominal action against “global terror” – no matter how ineffective – is a near certainty.


David Bosco in Foreign Policy Passport, asks a question I skirted in this post: “Are US advisors helping the Ethiopians in Somalia?” It’s a damned good question. Certainly, there’s US presence in the horn of Africa, including carrier support in Djbouti. It would be far from shocking to discover that battlefield intel was conveyed to Ethiopia from US aircraft… though it would put the issues I tried to raise in this post into sharper focus. Would this be yet another example of the 1% doctrine?

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11 Responses to Ethiopian army seizes Mogadishu. Does anyone outside of the Bush and Zenawi administrations think this was a good idea?

  1. Akwe says:

    Ethan, your scepticism is warranted, particularly among those who recall US financial support for the so called “anti-terror coalition” of warlords in Mogadishu defeated by the Islamic Courts Union earlier this year. Couple of other points: the US urging of Uganda to become engaged does not, I fear, dilute perceptions of US backing for Ethiopia. The Kampala government is and has been strongly supported by the US and has been keen to show itself as strong an “anti-terror ally” as the Meles government.
    Also, I’m not sure that we can reasonably describe Ethiopia as a christian nation, although doubtless Mr Meles would like his country to be seen that way. The population is 45-50% muslim, according to the CIA world factbook, which suggests that christians number 35-40% with the balance being animist and ‘other’. Whether those numbers are right or not, we can safely assume that Ethiopia has too many muslim citizens to be described as anything other than ‘finely balanced’.

  2. Hi Ethan,
    Great post on the Ethiopian-Somali situation, which I am also blogging about. It will be important that we continue to look critically at unfolding events in the Horn because the media, particularly the US media, will lose interest in a little while. In the meantime, I have a question for you. Today, Zenawe denied that any US made munitions were used in the invasion. Do you know of any sources pertaining to where Ethiopia buys arms, or any pertaining to US and/or European Aid to Ethiopia? Please email me about this if you would be so kind.. For some reason, I am highly skeptical of Zenawe’s claim on this. By the way, I am going to put you on my blogroll as soon as I am finished here.

  3. Drew says:

    Re: Uganda’s role, Akwe said it nicely – it’s as if Uganda and Ethiopia are in a competition to prove who has been trained better by the US military.

    Akwe’s other point about Ethiopia’s Muslim population is well-placed and important. No one is getting how important, even the few (NPR) who get the numbers right (I’d say 50% Muslim is a conservative estimate): global support of Ethiopia’s invasion will contribute to massive destabilization within the country as well, and more importantly, heightened autocracy and tacit oppression of the Muslim population by the Meles regime.

    Ethan – though I agree with nearly everything you say, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a global failure. Yes, US Islamophobia is at the heart of recent events, but their was a lot of regional and global cooperation that went into constructing and supporting the Baidoa gov. Knowing how many people could probably see this work going down the tubes back in July, I’m astonished at the global silence that has accompanied Ethiopia’s presence in Somalia. And now? Well, Kenya at least can’t afford to remain silent – let us hope that some how, someone, can buy some time as this conflict approaches their border.

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  5. quixote says:

    It’s screamingly sad to have choices limited to robbing warlords or theocratic dictators. To the extent that Somalis really were cheering the arriving troops, I’d bet it wasn’t because they liked them so much, but because of the hope that maybe, just maybe, they might represent a better solution. Given, as other commenters have pointed out, the pathetic international abdication of responsibility–at best–and messing about at worst, things sure aren’t hopeful.

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  7. Just for the record Ethan, I for one think that this action against the radical elements of the CIC in Somalia is a good idea and no I am not a member or big supporter of the Bush or Zenawi administrations.

    Don’t worry about having to defend the U.S. government and military from an “Islamaphobia” foreign policy in the Horn of Africa. I believe the present scenarios playing out inside Somalia are complicated and potentially dangerous as Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer and other international government officials and experts have repeatedly stated to the international press for years.

    Let’s start with the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, then there was that nasty little incident back in 1993… plus the Ethiopians and Kenyans and Eritreans and Sudanese and Libyans and Yemenis and Saudi Arabians and… all have their national security and business interests in Somalia at stake.

    Interesting to watch all the international envoys swoop into the region now in order to take advantage of the departure of the CIC (Council of Islamic Courts) from Mogadishu. Perhaps the more moderate elements of the CIC will be very anxious to sit down at the negotiating table with the Somali TFG and the “international community envoys” real soon. The government leaders of the autonomous regions of Somaliland and Puntland may even show up at the peace neogtiations. Now that would be really something, wouldn’t it?

    This “invasion” was bound to happen and you (not you personally, but you the reader) would have to have been very naive indeed to not have read the “Writing on the Wall” over the past 3 years or so. The JTF-HOA in Djibouti is not a multi-national development aid project, not exactly. How many western countries have a (token) presence of military combat troops and medical and engineering personnel in Djibouti now?

    Here is a Wikipedia link to more information about the Ethiopian military for Michael Riggs. I thought that those TV news reports showing Ethiopian troops with their heavy trucks and hardware looked familiar (Russian, East European, post-Soviet era stuff). The “technicals” (small pickup trucks with mounted heavy caliber automatic rifles and AAA) are Japanese and Korean made vehicles, sourced from select Middle Eastern and North African used car dealers.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethiopia/Military

  8. Ethan says:

    I appreciate the feedback, BRE, even though I come to different conclusions than you do. I am deeply concerned about the perception that the US is acting with very little international cooperation in situations where we percieve ourselves to be facing an Islamist threat. Specifically, in this case, I worry that an invasion the US has condoned, if not helped trigger, has made Somalia less safe. This worries me because you can make an argument that similar situations have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan – if there’s a trend in US foreign engagement, it appears to be a willingness to trade stability for the percieved security goal of eliminating people potentially associated with Al Qaeda. I’m increasingly unconvinced of the wisdom of this strategy, and the situation in Somalia worries me in particular, because the US government appears to be downplaying some longstanding tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia in allowing Ethiopia to be the agent of change in the Horn. But again, I’m glad you’re putting forth this view of global interest in the situation, even if we’ve come to different conclusions on the advisability of US actions.

  9. The source of the problem is the very involvement of the US in the affairs of the horn of Africa. whether the international community had invested in the transitional somali federal government is immaterial. What the international community and the US have achieved is destablize a stable country after so many years of demagoque warlords propped up by the CIA with American funds and money that helped to prolong the tyranny on the Somali people by the American agents.

    My feeling is that the Somalis are paying the price for killing 18 American GI’s.America has long forgottent that her peacekeepers have killed over 10,000 Somali women and Children in one single day. Because those white Anglo-Saxons at the helm of American power place very little value on Black live in their home country the situation in Somalia is an extension of the racist attitudes of the dominant white elite.

    I have no doubt that minority Christian Tigre-led Ethiopia regime of Mr. Zenawi is an agent of US. Directly or indirectly the US should be held account for the atrocities and the war-crimes that are committted on their behalf.

    I believe and totally see all the acts of violence such as “Suicide Bombing” and “Political Killings” by the Al-shebab and the alliance for the Re-liberation of Somalia as legitimate.
    The dangerous conditions created by the Ethiopian Invasion demands such measures. I am not one of those apologetic Somalis that call their people terrorist or they have links to Al-Qaida when their own people are being victimized for reasons of whiteman racism and Jewish led global zionism. I believe and would recommend to the Somali people to go and slaughter every single white man in the dark continent whenever they have the chance and where ever.

    I believe and support that the legitimate mechanisms and appropriate prime sponsors of terror and state-led are pridominantly white Anglo-saxons and their stooges every where. I believe this global minority must be seen as what they are bigots that are terrorizing the rest of the world when they are only less then 12% of the people on the face on earth.

    I believe be it in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Somalia those who are fighting the instruments of America and their “workers” are doing their nationalistic duties to ebb the “the empire of America” and her Zionist and terrorist agenda. The real Al-Qaida that has the hallmark of terrorist acts is the US. Who else but bombards innocent civilians on daily bases and call them the victims of their “state sponsored terrorism” terrorists.

    We are fed up with the American war-machine. And the people of the World emphatically say America your security is in your national border not in the hinderland of Arabia, Asia, or Africa. May be I believe this Devil whiteman should be nuked.

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