The Pentagon said yesterday that the U.S. had attacked suspected al Qaeda targets in southern Somalia. CNN reports:
The operation was launched based on intelligence that al Qaeda operatives were at the location, but there was no immediate indication of how successful the strike had been.
The official said the al Qaeda operatives had fled south late last month from Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, after Ethiopian-backed Somali troops forced out Islamist militants who had taken over much of southern Somalia. (Watch CNN’s Barbara Starr report on al Qaeda in Somalia.)
He did not identify the operatives, but U.S. officials accused the Islamic Courts Union of harboring suspects in the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya.
As this BBC timeline explains, the Ethiopian-backed Somalian government, which has been battling to take Somalia back from Islamists for awhile, captured Mogadishu right after Christmas and seized the port of Kismayo — “the last remaining stronghold” of the Islamists — on January 1. The BBC explains that now the United States is attacking Islamist fighters to keep them from regrouping and fomenting guerrilla war, which might make Somalia start to look a whole lot like Iraq.
As Andrew Cawthorne of Reuters reported after the fall of Kismayo on January 1,
“Washington encouraged Addis Ababa [Ethiopia] to go ahead. They provided the same sort of diplomatic cover they did for Israel going into Lebanon last summer, and for similar reasons — to keep a foothold in the region,” said analyst Michael Weinstein.
“Ordinary Americans are fed up with foreign interventions. So what’s happened in Somalia is now going to be a preferred strategy — using allies in the region as their catapult,” said Weinstein, a politics professor at Indiana’s Purdue University.
Western military sources say the United States gave Ethiopia intelligence and surveillance help to accelerate its victory.
Both Washington and Addis Ababa had portrayed the Islamists as linked to and even run by al Qaeda, putting Somalia firmly on the map of the U.S.-led global “war on terror”.
Yet President George W. Bush, haunted by such moments as his premature declaration of victory in Iraq in 2003, and his Africa policy-makers are unlikely to be crowing victory quickly.
Some analysts predict the Islamists, who fled rather than take heavy casualties, could regroup and fight an Iraq-style insurgency from remote corners of Somalia, or carry out bomb attacks elsewhere in east Africa.
“The parallels with Iraq are unsettling,” said Nairobi-based Somalia expert Matt Bryden.
There is no guarantee of peace and harmony in Somalia now that six months of Islamist sharia rule are over.
Indeed, the rapid return of warlords to Mogadishu shows how easily it could slide back into the anarchy and chaos it has suffered since dictator Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.
“The Americans have learned enough in Somalia not to run up a ‘mission accomplished’ banner,” Bryden said.
Au contraire. Vance Serchuk The Weekly Standard seems to be waving a “mission accomplished” banner rather proudly in the current issue (January 15):
After holding Mogadishu for six months, Somalia’s Islamists have been swept from power, ousted in a blitzkrieg attack by the Ethiopian military. The nature of the emerging political order in Somalia remains profoundly uncertain, with the retreating Islamists threatening to wage an Iraq-style insurgency, and the internationally recognized Somali government facing doubts about its popular legitimacy, internal cohesion, and ability to ensure even basic security. Still, the battlefield gains of the past two weeks have created a rare window of opportunity in this long-suffering corner of the Horn of Africa, as well as in the broader war on terror.
The rout of the Islamists also represents a surprising success for the Bush administration, whose Somalia policy seemed hopelessly mired in interagency acrimony just a few months ago. Following the defeat of a coalition of CIA-backed “secular” warlords by the Islamists earlier this year, angry accusations flew from the State Department about Langley’s botched efforts, which seemed to have helped consolidate the very threat they were intended to preempt.
Yet ultimately, it was the behavior of the Islamists themselves, once established in power, that spurred key officials at Foggy Bottom to embrace a new, more aggressive set of policies. Prisoners to their ideology, the hardliners in Mogadishu failed to take the pragmatic steps that could have led to a rapprochement with the United States and allowed them to outflank the hapless “official” Somali government. Instead, the Islamists continued to shelter several known al Qaeda operatives, while welcoming other foreign jihadists into their ranks.
If only those awful hardliners had taken those pragmatic steps … but at The Agonist, Ian Welsh puts a different spin on pragmatism:
See, here’s the thing. The US, again, refused to talk directly to the ICU [Islamic Courts Union]. The ICU, like Hezbollah, wanted, needed, recognition (even more than Hezbollah). A deal could have been made. But it wasn’t. Instead what the US has done is back a foreign invasion in support of a puppet government with no popular support. …
…To summarize: the US has backed letting the warlords get back to their business of murder, extortion and rape. I’m sure the Somali people appreciate that.
Perhaps you see the problem.
Anyway, Jonathan Clayton of the Times (UK) writes that Somalia could start looking a whole lot like Iraq anyway.
The United States’ decision to bomb Islamists holed up in a corner of Somalia near the border with Kenya is a high-risk tactic which could ignite an Iraqi-style insurgency across a swathe of East Africa, analysts and regional experts say.
Buoyed by the success that its allies — Ethiopia and the UN-backed transitional Government — have had in driving the Islamists out of the capital in recent weeks, Washington clearly feels that it has an opportunity to wipe out what it sees as a persistent threat to Western interests in the region. The Americans have gone for the jugular.
The danger is that the high loss of life reported and the likelihood that many non-al Qaeda sympathisers have been killed, including more moderate leaders of the defeated Union of Islamic Courts, could see the operation backfire spectacularly and unite Somalis against its new US-supported government.
“The US has sided with one Somali faction against another, this could be the beginning of a new civil war â€¦ I fear once again they have gone for a quick fix based on false information. If they pull it off, however, it could be a turning point. The stakes are very high indeed, now,” said one highly respected regional analyst, recalling the futile US role in the hunt in the early 1990s for one Somali warlord which resulted in the Black Hawk Down incident when 18 US special forces troops were killed.
It may take some time to sort out the facts, but today’s news stories contain a number of claims of many civilian casualties as a result of the U.S. attacks, plus indications that Somalians are pissed off. Ethiopia and Somalia have a history, as they say, plus Ethiopia has a large Christian population, and Somali Muslims were not thrilled by the presence of Ethiopian troops in their country. Add civilian casualties from a U.S. raid, and insurrection easily could follow. VoilÃ — the mission is un-accomplished.