Gwynne Dyer: Bush administrations follies continue to hurt the people of Somalia

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

On Monday (August 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 suicide squad stormed the al-Muna hotel in Mogadishu on August 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 epicentre 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 United States 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 United States 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 (The Youth). 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 United States, 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 ops.

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.

The second edition of Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.



Mr Hargeisa

Aug 25, 2010 at 10:11am

You understand the politics of the Horn very well. Ethiopia is always afraid of Somalia but remember this, even with 20 years of civil war, if Somalia gets just 5 years of peace it will surpass Ethiopia in every way and sense. It already leads them in number of fields including media, telecommunication, internet, etc.

Right now Ethiopians come to Hargeisa to buy electronics and other items then they smuggle it into their country.

Also while Ethiopia is crying for foreign aid, this wee we all seen how al shabab burnt the food aid, Ethiopia would be happy to take it. So maybe give it to them next time.


Aug 25, 2010 at 10:19am

Actually Ethiopians are the only country that can handle Somalia, if Ethiopia given a good chance they will take care of those stupid hard liners idiots, Ethiopians are a well trained military and they are an expert on guerrilla and other types of war. so the author is a clueless and naive who do not know the exact situations in Ethiopia or Somalia, and he just want to hear those hard-liner Somalian in Canada and USA, but the reality is Ethiopia is not a problem, the problem is other neighbors like Eritrea and coward Kenyans who are afraid to said one soldier


Aug 25, 2010 at 11:56am

IMO, the developed west needs to keep as many third world basket cases as it can from industrializing or otherwise increasing thier living standards. Less CO2 emissions that way.


Aug 25, 2010 at 12:30pm

if Ethiopia is strong enough than how are Eritrea and the Kenyans a problem for not sending soldiers. I think this author actually understands allot more about the conflict than many others.


Aug 25, 2010 at 5:47pm

Islamic violence exist well before Bush or America, Al-Shabab does exist within the ICU and the ICU was declaring Jihad against Ethiopia well before the Ethiopian army went to Somalia, what the Ethiopian army did was brought to light and isolated the hidden Al-Shabab from the ICU.

By trying to blame America and Ethiopia you are trying to justify the radicals in Somalia while there can be no justification for what they did in Kampala or Somalia. You are a fallen prey to the tactics of excuses to terrorize.