Ethiopian troops, protected by US air power, invaded Somalia on Christmas Eve of 2006 to break the chokehold of that country by Islamists. The pressing question now is whether Somalia is going to be overrun by Islamists after Ethiopia pulls its army out in January of 2009. If that happens, with Somalia pose a strategic threat to US interests?
There are three perspectives on the potential Ethiopian pullout from Somalia - the American, Ethiopian and Somali perspectives, each guided by its own strategic interest.
The American perspective is dominated by its preoccupation with Somalia as a potential terrorist haven, and this could take a new life with an Ethiopian pullout. In a recent essay on the Harvard Review International, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, Amb. Shin, assessing the American role in the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, wrote: "Washington gave a green light late in 2006 to Ethiopia, which has a 1,000-mile long border with Somalia but is a traditional enemy."
How deeply Washington is worried about Somalia is also highlighted by the recent trip that Senator Feingold of Wisconsin paid to Djibouti this week to closely assess the situation on the ground.
At a closer look, though, the American perspective in Somalia, largely colored by the "war on terror" doctrine, is short-sighted and is fundamentally wrong. Washington has been carrying out its Somalia policy on the cheap by employing warlords and Ethiopia as proxy to fight against Islamists. Washington's on-again off-again support for Somalia's warlords - never missing an opportunity to be wrong - is incongruent to the core American values.
In 2006, Washington partnered with Ethiopia to invade Somalia with the objective of getting rid of Islamists. That convenient marriage would end with the pullout of Ethiopia, however, leaving behind massive scale of human rights abuses, a nearly disintegrated UN-recognized government and a growing Islamist movement. Meanwhile, Washington does not have a coherent and comprehensive Somalia policy.
The Ethiopian perspective is of two in nature. First, the Ethiopian government has used its proxy status in Somalia's conflict both for its own short term and long term strategies. Its short term strategy has been to avail its service to Washington in the "war on terror," hence gaining access to America's largesse in aid and weaponry. The Ethiopian regime, led by Prime Minster Meles Zenawi is autocratic with a dismal human rights record, as seen in its blockade of the entire Ethiopian Somali region (the Ogaden) in last October. By some accounts, the blockade was worse than the atrocities often reported from Darfur.
The long term strategy of the current Ethiopian regime towards Somalia has been to deny the later any chance to reconstitute itself in a democratic manner. Besides the two countries' differences based on primordial accounts rooted in ethnicity and religion, they fought two wars over the colonial demarcation of a 1,000-long border line.
The current Somalia problem can be traced back to political actions sponsored by the former dictator of Ethiopia, Megistu Haile Mariam. As many as four major armed opposition groups (United Somali Congress, Somali Salivation Democratic Front, Somali National Movement, and Somali Patriotic Movement) were hosted and financed by Ethiopia in the 1980s, who successfully but chaotically overthrew the government of late Dictator Mohamed Siyad Barre in 1990. Somalia has been without a government since then.
Ethiopia has repeatedly frustrated any Somali effort to arrest its internal strife. Since the Somalia conflict started in 1990, Meles had used one warlord against another (as many as ten) to derail home-grown efforts to resolve conflicts. Among the warlords Prime Minster Zenawi used included the late General Aidid, who successfully evaded American special troops, hence the Black hock down incident, and discarded all of them one by one. In the last one month, Ethiopia discarded the President of the UN-recognized Transitional Federal Government, Mr. Abdulahi Yusuf. Mr. Yusuf originally sanctioned the current Ethiopian occupation of his country, an action that ultimately caused his political demise.
WardheerNews has received reports that confirm that the Ethiopian Prime Minster is now poised to work with the faction of the Islamic Courts Union led by Sheikh Sheriff Hassan and Prime Minister Nur Hassan Hussein who had fallen out of favor with the weakened president.
A second Ethiopian perspective comes from dissidents and civic groups inside Ethiopia, who felt that invasion of Somalia by their country was illegal. Dr. Negasso Gidada, former president of Ethiopia and an independent seat holder in Ethiopia's parliament vehemently opposed his country's invasion of Somalia. Civic leaders and dissidents, whose victory of the 2005 parliamentary election were robbed off by Prime Minster's Ethiopian peoples Democratic Front (EPRDF) argue that, although the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is a reality in the Horn of Africa, there are better ways to contain and resolve Somalia's conflict than Ethiopia playing a proxy to Washington's strategic interests.
The most pronounced Somali perspective supports a complete and unconditional pullout of Ethiopia from their country. Despite Washington's dictates, the most common view held by Somalis welcomes any other troops for peacekeeping, but not from Ethiopia. Having Ethiopia play a big brother's role in Somalia affairs is like "the fox watching the chicken coop."
There are warlords and faction leaders, including some religious extremists, who would see Ethiopia as a temporary ally. But the average Mohamed in the streets of Mogadishu would like to see the pullout to be as fast and as orderly as possible. Unlike the West's worries, Ethiopia's prolonged stay in Somalia has and would strengthen, and broaden the basis of the most radical group Al-Shabab, who has successfully challenged and effectively so far limited Ethiopian occupation of Somalia.
Despite Washington's lack of comprehensive Somalia policy, an Ethiopian pullout of Somalia is the better option for all, including for the US. It is not in anyone's interest to turn Al-Shabab into the defenders of Somalia's territorial integrity, hence making it a martyr.
Faisal Roble is a member of WardheerNews Editorial board. Email: email@example.com