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The Ethiopia-Somalia Conflict
By David Shinn*
December 28, 2006
The following is my abbreviated assessment of the current fighting between Ethiopian military forces and militias of the Somali Islamic Courts. I approach the topic from the standpoint of US interests, not those of either Ethiopia or Somalia. I define US interests as achieving political and economic stability in East Africa and the Horn, minimizing or eliminating humanitarian disasters, and successfully countering terrorism.
1. Ethiopia has legitimate security concerns vis-à-vis Somalia, not the least of which is a 1,000 mile long border. There is a history of previous hostility, the legacy of Mogadishu’s Greater Somalia policy that laid claim to about one-quarter of the land area (the Haud and the Ogaden inhabited by Somali-speaking peoples) of Ethiopia, and the fact that at least one senior leader of the Islamic Courts recently stated his intention to revive irredentist claims in Ethiopia. Another senior leader of the Islamic Courts disavowed any such claim.
2. There is also the legacy of terrorist attacks against Ethiopia in the mid and late-1990s emanating from al-Ittihad al-Islami, now a defunct organization in Somalia. Several of its leaders, however, hold senior positions in the Islamic Court structure. In addition, there is credible evidence that three non-Somalis involved in the 1998 terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam took refuge in Somalia and may still be there.
3. The Ethiopian military is far more powerful than the militias of the Islamic Courts, which can not at this writing pose a serious military threat to the Ethiopian homeland, including the Somali-inhabited Ogaden region. The Ethiopian military has the capacity to defeat handily the Islamic Court militias inside Somalia in conventional engagements.
4. The more than thirty Islamic Courts are neither unified nor homogeneous except that they agree on their desire to create an Islamic state governed by some form of Sharia. They also appear unified in their opposition to Ethiopia. Different Courts seem to have different interpretations of the way they would implement Sharia. Some seem to prefer a benign version while others have taken extreme positions. It is important to remember that even Muslims in Ethiopia, which is almost fifty percent Muslim, observe elements of Sharia in civil issues.
5. Prior to the intervention in Somalia of Ethiopian fighting forces, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) held Baidoa and some surrounding territory, but little else. The Islamic Courts held about fifty percent of the former Somali Republic. Puntland and Somaliland were the two largest components not under their control. The UN, African Union and even the Arab League recognized the TFG as the legitimate government of Somalia.
6. Clan structure is critical to Somali political dynamics. To simplify, there are five major clans that then break down into sub-clans, sub-sub-clans, etc. Most, but certainly not all, support for the Islamic Courts comes from the Hawiye clan and especially its Habr Gedir sub-clan. Even within this sub-clan, the Ayr sub-sub-clan is most important.
7. The Islamic Courts achieved power quickly due to their ability to defeat discredited warlords in Mogadishu and establish for the first time in almost two decades relative peace and security. Most Somalis were fed up with sporadic conflict between clans and various political rivals for power. The Courts also instituted welcome social services. On the other hand, the extreme positions (e.g. declaring that anyone who did not pray fives times a day was subject to beheading) of one or more of the Courts alienated many Somalis. The effort by the Islamic Courts to ban the mild narcotic, Khat, which has been widely used by Somalis for many decades, was especially unpopular. (Khat is an illegal drug in North America and highly destructive to family life.)
8. This brings us to the most recent Ethiopian military intervention. Ethiopia stated that the intervention will be brief and not involve an effort to enter the capital of Mogadishu. Ethiopia reportedly intends to damage significantly the fighting capacity of the Islamic Court militias, forcing them to return to the negotiating table on an equal basis with the TFG.
9. The Ethiopian strategy, from the standpoint of ETHIOPIAN interests, is appropriate. But can it work? I have serious doubts.
10. If Ethiopia completes its military campaign quickly and then withdraws all of its forces, the area it has taken from the Islamic Courts will presumably be turned over to the TFG and former warlords. Can they successfully withstand attacks from the Islamic Courts? This is highly doubtful. Will the TFG and the former warlords remain united? This, too, is questionable.
11. And if Ethiopia concludes that it must remain for an extended period of time in order to insure the success of the TFG and former warlords, how will Ethiopian forces fare? I seriously doubt that Ethiopia wants to get bogged down in a long, drawn out guerrilla campaign with Islamic Court militias deep inside Somalia and far from Ethiopian supply centers. This would not be in the interest of stability in the Horn of Africa or in the interest of the US.
12. It is important to emphasize that other foreign players are deeply involved in the fighting in Somalia. According to numerous press reports, significant numbers of jihadi fighters from the Middle East and South Asia have arrived to support the Islamic Courts. The UN-sponsored Monitoring Group on Somalia reported in October that there were 2,000 Eritrean troops in Somalia in support of the Islamic Courts. (Eritrea denies that it has troops in Somalia; the denial is not credible.)
13. From my perspective, and I believe from the standpoint of the best interests of the US, all foreign forces should leave Somalia—Ethiopian troops, Eritrean troops, and non-Somali jihadis. Little positive will be accomplished, however, if only one or two of these components depart and one or two stay.
14. It is equally important that the Islamic Courts and the TFG return to the negotiating table where they must sit down in the spirit of compromise and agree to a power sharing arrangement. This will be difficult, but it is not impossible. The talks will probably result in an Islamic state, but Somalia is virtually entirely Muslim and it would not be the first Islamic State. Islam in Somalia also has a long tradition of moderation. A government comprised of representatives of the secular TFG and religiously-focused Islamic Courts provides at least the possibility of a government that can establish security and be accepted by the majority of Somalis. As long as foreign parties play a major role in Somalia, there is virtually no possibility of long-term peace. At best there will be a short-term imposed peace and even this is probably wishful thinking.
15. Foreign forces will probably not leave Somalia unless they face considerable international pressure. This will require the friends of the TFG and Ethiopia such as the US and the European Union to put pressure on Ethiopia to leave. The Arab League collectively and its individual members must do the same with the Islamic Courts so that the foreign jihadis leave Somalia. Friends of Eritrea such as Italy must ensure that the Eritrean troops leave. Any other non-Somali groups, such as Ethiopian dissident organizations that oppose the current government in Addis Ababa, must also leave if they are present in Somalia.
16. There is obviously no guarantee that this scenario will work. It is fraught with challenges. As I look at the problem, however, it has at least as good a chance of success and will result in less loss of life than the alternatives. It will also minimize the return to Somalia of a humanitarian disaster. Finally, it is the approach that comes closest to achieving US interests in the region as it might permit the return of stability and open the door to serious discussions with Somali authorities concerning past links to terrorism.
*David Shinn is former United States Ambassador to Ethiopia
Dear readers! This war is not between Ethiopians and Somalis or between Islam and Christianity, as has been labeled by some in recent weeks .It is between Woyane and Somalia Islamic extremists, It is just a war between two extreme and desperate groups who have no official mandate from their people. Let’s hope that this war would bring the downfall and removal of both the brutal Meles government in Ethiopia and the Islamic extremists in Somalia and peace to East Africa
Your country is arming and abbeting Woyane and now you talk here. Go and fool your fool. We know who is behind this war. Your talk does not relieve the deprived Ethiopians and Somalians of their suffering.
I am ashamed of living in the world where a nation that claims to be the world’s superpower is too greedy to care about human life.
Don’t worry Sir,
Situation is under control. Somalia now has a better oportunity under TFG. it is now the responsibility of TFG, AU, and UN to make sure that the peace of Somalia is sustained.
Now the people of Somali, If they want to be lead by Sheria, or what ever, it is upto them. They have the freedom to do whatever they want, they can exercise the religin they want. No More ectrimist, dangerious, foreign elements.
Peace to Somalia!
That did not look like a holy war more like holy shit. one love
nice to see you burn!
U ethiopians r going to another Iraq. Look after ur people. Next will be between OROMO, TIGRAI, AMARA, and ur own Moslim. Meles is going to keep ur stupid mouth and butt shut.
Do you have any guarante where the somali Transitional government is moving? After the situation is settled down your groups the weyane will be out of the game. Things don’t stay as you put it. Politics has a dynamic nature as it has been shown in many world parts. For example, the colapse of the friendship of SHAEBIA and WEYANE, which was out of expctetion, and you can also remember your own groups division, the weyane leadership. How could you say the situation is under control. Don’t keep up with your one room mind. Open it for analyses. You guys, the weyanes, will be involved in a very complex equation in the near future. Internally we Ethiopians have an unfinished assignment. Do you have any clue what we are doing to kick out the weyane gnagsters? Be ready Mr. thief to stand before the law for the crimes you comitted.
Don’t worry. I have the assurance. I am talking about Israeli-US, or can I say South Corea-US kind of relation ship?? If you have the polictical determination then U can make things happen for the interest of the region.
We are talking about real life scenarios, not ideal cases like you want to analyze. Ofcourse TFG is another government who will make sure that itsinterest are met no matter what, and we as a country will always make sure that our interests are met and we have shown that all the time, and we will achieve that even if it is going to be by blood.
We will always fight to keep our interests with out affecting the interest of our neighbours, the Nile-Negotation that is being underway could show you this fact. In a world where people do not have integrety, honesty, political maturity, good leadership quality, it is always a must to have alternative starategies and we always had and we will have it in the near future.
So as the Americans say, There are things that you do not know, and that we call it STATE Secret!!! if you dedicate your life to serving the nation, then you will have the oportunity to know the plans and the stratagies our country men had for the kind of scenarios that you are worrying about.
Aye Eritrea, yeafrica Hong Kong
What do you think Meles is going to do next? If I were an Eritrean, I would have asked Afeworky to surrender the two ports Melese gave him by mistake. The Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia are disappointed with the resistance they faced and they want to release all that adrenalin somewhere. It sounds like Eritrea is just the place.
Bad afeworki bad Eritreans what you gonna do, what you gonna do when Melse come for you. Kikiiiiki
Mohamed Alli, where are you?? It sounds like funny is taking over your old job. That is sad. Is he your boss. That is why you never say anything bad about him. In the last posting, it sounds like he was ordering you, bummer. You are still a slave.
As a diplomat Mr.Shin knows that the TPLF solders involvement in somalia is to divert the internal political crisis the government is facing inside the country.That is the main reason Ethiopians (in general) did not support Zenawi’s adventure in Somalia.United States should not support a regime which is one of the worst human right violators Ethiopia has ever seen in its history.
God Bless Ethiopia.
Interesting points. Not sure I agree with some of the points. It is very easy to say that all foreign troops should leave Somalia, but how the hell is that going to be enforced? Who are the Jihadists going to listen to? Who is Issayas going to listen to? This is an unachievable goal from the onset.
There are several unknowns in the still evolving situation:
1) will the clans in the capital be able to work with the TFG?
2) will the moderates in the ICU break ranks and join the TFG?
3) will Somalis tame their ego and seize this opportunity to work with each other or will they think of the TFG as a puppet of ET and reject it?
4) why didn’t the ET forces chase the retreating Jihadists and destroy them on their way to Kismayo?
5) will the TFG be able to stand on its own once the ET forces go home?
6) where the hell are the Eritreans? They already fled?
The next few days will be critical. Law and order needs to be restored in the capital. But really, the Jihadists need to be hunted down and destroyed so that they have no chance of mounting any possible attack.
Dear Dr. Shinn:
First let me put forward my question and concern to you.
I agree in principle to your suggestions specially regarding withdrawal of foreign participants in Somalia.
However, given the context of the global political and military or quasi-military dynamics, it is very difficult to believe that idea could be practical. It would rather remain a matter of principle to be preached by NGO’s only. The reality in the world is entirely different. In practice it would not be possible to create Somalia free of any foreign elements and foreign influence under today’s circumstance. And the political game in that country has got multi-participants who have multi-interests.
Therefore, any decision to withdraw foreign forces will primarily hamper the roles of those forces who officially involved in the conflict like Ethiopia as other forces sustain their secret involvement in one way or the other. Thus, such move is unfair as it suppresses the involvement and representation of one group of the participants while empowering that of the other group. Such opinion, while it is noble in principle, is totally based on theoretical hypothesis and does not take into account the objective reality. Hence, it cannot bring solution, but rather distorts the prevailing power balance attained at sacrifice. The “Arms Embargo” decision of the UN Security Council was also similar to this. In practice it did not work towards its intended goal. Rather it worked to the contrary, and the result is the homework Meles is now doing. So such suggestion at this point is like finding a way to get time for the defeated/weakened group to revive. Secret and illegal activities usually remain active irrespective of whatever laws put in effect to ban them. On the other hand official and express operations are so liable.
To Ethiopians, as one writer clearly indicated above, this war is not between Ethiopia and Somalia. It is between Ethiopia’s Woyane and Somalia’s UIC - two extremely antidemocratic self-appointed gangs who have no mandate to rule. However, the war cannot be considered to be entirely Woyane war as it has inevitable results on the future Ethio-Somalian relations. One fact about this war is whether or not we Ethiopians acknowledge this war, we will definitely take the consequences both now as we are in war and in the future in shaping the relationship between the two countries. Now that we are already in the war, we better acknowledge it and try to shape it in a constructive way for a better and sustainable result.
The Weyanes are clueless on what they got in to just like the way to the May 2005 election. They are too dumb to understand the obvious. They just started a very long nasty and dangerous war. God save Ethiopia from these brainless creatures.
the solution and the one Prof. Shinn has mised is for AU and/or IGAD peace keeping force to quickly move in to fill the void that will be created as Ethiopian army leave. These will have a double purpose; 1, keeping the peace and not giving a chance for the warlordism to resurrect. 2, assuring all somalis to concentrate in draftng the constitution in time and forming a government (whether democracy or islamic).
it is important that the void shold be filled by a conventional peaceful army led by either Uganda or even south africa until full stability most probabily until election.
What the former U.S. Ambasador is not talking is their interest to have a puppet Government in Somalia like they have in Ethiopia and suck the resources for their benefit while the people of Somalia, Ethiopia like other African countries are suffering under “friendly tyrannts", poverty and disease.
The expert advised that the OLF and ONLF should be out of Somalia if they are there but does not say where they have to go or their possibility of being part of the Ethiopian politics.
Why does not the expert speak of the tyranny of the “friendly tyrannt” and the imprisonment of 100 or so of opposition leaders and 20-30,000 of its supports.
It what the expert is writing a receipt for peace. I don`t think so. Either he does not want peace because one of the interests of his country is to sell weapons.
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