Sunday, December 23, 2007

"When will Ethiopia withdraw its troops from Somalia?"

Julie W., a graduate student in Global Affairs at NYU, e-mailed me a set of four thought-provoking questions about Somalia's future. With Julie's consent, I'm posting her questions and my replies in four successive posts.

Here is Julie's third query:

Ethiopian troops remain in Somalia and have been engaged in hostilities with insurgents in Mogadishu in recent weeks. One incident, in which Ethiopian troops were dragged through the streets by insurgents, was eerily similar to the “Blackhawk Down” scenario involving U.S. troops. Do you think that Ethiopia now faces the prospect of being drawn into a long-term occupation of Somalia? Do you foresee a scenario under which Ethiopia would withdraw its troops?

. . . and my response:

I'm not sure what you see as "eerily" similar about the two incidents involving barbaric treatment of captured foreign soldiers by angry Somalis. But certainly they share a common theme: a suitable response to similarly barbaric treatment at the hands of foreigners:

• The 1993 incident involving brutalization of U.S. troops in Mogadishu followed on the heels of an even more brutal U.S. gunship TOW-missle attack, aimed at disrupting a meeting of several dozen respected Somali elders who had gathered, we later learned, to discuss dumping the infamous General Mohammed Farah Aideed and suing for peace with the Americans. Scores of men, women, and children were killed in the incident. (See Mark Bowden's version of the attack on "Abdi's House," pp. 72-74 of "Black House Down"; sadly, this incident was omitted from the grossly one-sided movie version of Bowden's book.)

• The 2007 incident that involved dragging captured Ethiopian troops through the streets of Mogadishu likewise occurred in the wake of a callous military attack on unarmed civilians, in this instance indiscriminate bombardment of civilian neighborhoods of the city by the invading forces; and it similarly caused a very considerable death toll and an angry response by families and neighbors of the victims.

I also question whether, or perhaps how, Ethiopia has been "drawn into a long-term occupation" of Somalia. With U.S. encouragement and tactical support, and after extensive preparation, Ethiopia launched its armed invasion of Somalia exactly a year ago (December 20), declaring of course that it had no intention of remaining there longer than was necessary to eradicate the terrorist threat it perceived inside Somalia, i.e., the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).

Background (probably unneeded): The UIC had seized control of Mogadishu from clan warlords six months earlier, imposing its own shariah-based peace on the capital and winning a substantial popular following as a result. It had also defeated an attempt by those same ousted warlords, newly armed and supported by the United States, to regain control of Mogadishu. And it had subsequently expanded its political control outward from the capital into other areas under warlord control, finally threatening to capture the Transitional Government's provisional capital at Baidoa, located on the principal highway between Mogadishu and the Ethiopian border.

It was down that same highway (the very route Mussolini's army had taken to reach Addis and conquer Ethiopia seventy years earlier) that a major force of Ethiopian troops then poured into Somalia, easily routing the UIC militia, quickly seizing Mogadishu itself, and soon expanding to control most other towns in the area. Twice, its American friends sent helicopter gunships to attack throngs of Somalis fleeing the invaders, ostensibly to prevent "terrorists" from crossing the border into Kenya. Dozens of refugees and nomads were killed in the process.

A year later, a half-million Somalis have fled Mogadishu while the Ethiopian invaders find themselves in a quagmire not unlike ours in Iraq. I strongly doubt their government intends for them to remain in Mogadishu any longer than necessary to neutralize the radical Islamist threat it perceives from that quarter; and like ourselves in Baghdad, they have installed themselves as guarantors of very wobbly government and assumed the task of training and leading a new security force (largely composed of President Abdullahi Yusuf's own rag-tag tribal militia from the north) intended to suppress its opponents. But hundreds of young Somalis have meanwhile responded by organizing and arming a sort of maquis resistance to challenge the invaders and drive them out of the country.

As a consequence, as much as the Ethiopian troops might like to pack up and go home, they now have a tiger by the tail and cannot let loose without a serious loss of dignity. President Clinton swallowed a similar Somalia embarrassment in 1993 by simply declaring our job done, lowering our flag, and withdrawing our forces; that's the only scenario I can imagine under which the Ethiopians might withdraw now.

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