Cries in the Dark

By David Axe

Somalia needs help, both for the sake of Somalis and for a stable East Africa that does not harbor extremists. But a destabilizing Ethiopian occupation, U.N. heel-dragging, a dearth of African peacekeeping resources, and seething anti-Americanism among many Somalis—resulting in part from the confused and inconsistent U.S. policy in the region—makes international assistance a dicey affair.

Inside a Somali Refugee Camp

Dr. Abdi's camp is on the front lines of the crisis. To survive in a lawless land, the camp has had to take on all the functions normally performed by the state. Abdi writes camp rules and commands a small security force of former militiamen armed with AK-47s to enforce them. Violators get locked up in a makeshift cell "so they can think about what they did," she said. When marauders raid the camp, which they often do, the camp's cops become its army and Abdi its battlefield commander. In October bandits attacked, aiming to steal U.N.-donated food. The assault was repulsed, with just one camp resident wounded.

For all her deft adaptation, Abdi is nevertheless overwhelmed. Intensified fighting that began in October has driven a million Somalis from their homes. In 2007 the camp's population jumped from 400 families to the current 6,100. "I need more aid. I need more help, at least for building shelters," she said. "We need more food. People are sick." Despite a recent expansion and with two of Abdi's medically trained daughters joining her, the hospital is "more and more inadequate."

Standing on the roof of the tall, white-washed administration building that serves as camp hospital, security headquarters, and staff dining hall, Abdi pointed to a patch of ground, now sprouting colorful tents. There, 15 years ago, a U.S. military helicopter delivered then-U.S. President George H. W. Bush for a brief visit. This was just months before the Battle of Mogadishu. The President's visit was the last time any American official visited the camp. These days U.S. policymakers prefer not to even talk about Somalia.

What the United States Hath Wrought 

But U.S. policy in East Africa is partly to blame for the current crisis. U.S. military support for Ethiopia, which has an estimated 50,000 troops in Somalia, contributes to the very instability the United States should have an interest in ending and counteracts U.S. support for African Union peacekeepers struggling to stabilize Mogadishu.

Granted, it was never the United States' intent to make Somalia worse. After the deaths of those U.S. troops in 1993, until quite recently America's policy was simply to stay out of Somali affairs. But in the early 2000s the hard-line Islamic Courts movement began a steady spread across Somalia. With growing popular support, Courts fighters toppled warlord after warlord until most of the country, including Mogadishu, was under Courts rule. Movies, popular music, and dancing were banned, but for the first time in a decade much of the country realized a measure of stability, and foreign investment poured in.

But the rise of the Islamic Courts raised U.S. fears that Somalia might become a haven for terrorists—indeed, some reports indicated that the masterminds of a 2002 al Qaeda attack on a Kenyan resort were hiding out in the country's rural wasteland. By 2006 the Courts were firmly in charge in Mogadishu and had begun to gather forces for a final assault on the opposition holdouts in Baidoa.

For the United States, that was the tipping point. But little evidence existed that the Courts' rule would result in widespread, popular extremism. "Somalis in general show little interest in jihadi Islamism; most are deeply opposed," is how the New York-based International Crisis Group assessed the situation. The U.S. government wasn't taking any chances. After 14 years, the U.S. military turned its attention again to Somalia.


But the 2006 intervention looked nothing like 1992's Operation Restore Hope. Earlier in the year, Pentagon officials had decided to take on a bigger role in Africa, announcing the establishment of a new Africa Command to be based initially in Germany, with a forward base in Djibouti on Somalia's northern border (where a small U.S. counter-terrorism task force had been entrenched since 2002). Embracing counter-insurgency tactics honed in Iraq and Afghanistan, AFRICOM would be stacked with trainers, advisers, and logisticians but would include few, if any, combat personnel.

With 200,000 U.S. troops bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was a necessary concession, but it also represented a new way of thinking about battling extremists. "AFRICOM's mission will not be focused on warfighting, but on building local security partnerships in Africa to enable African nations to address security challenges themselves," said Theresa Whelan, the Pentagon's top official for Africa.

AFRICOM formally launched in October 2007. But by then the command's proxy strategy was already being tested in Somalia. Landlocked Ethiopia, Somalia's largely Christian northern neighbor, had long eyed Somalia's excellent deepwater ports. With the Courts' rise, Ethiopian and U.S. interests suddenly dovetailed, and in December 2006, Ethiopia invaded Somalia, in the process becoming America's proxy in a new front in the war against Islamist extremists.

U.S. Army advisers from the Guam National Guard trained Ethiopian troops. Ethiopian aircraft flew with U.S.-funded parts. And American warplanes targeted suspected terrorists at the same time that the Ethiopian army and its allies in the Baidoa-based transitional government forces routed Islamic Courts fighters that Ethiopian Prime Minster Meles Zenawi said had been on the cusp of "Talibanizing" Somalia.

Back to Square One

Much like in Iraq, the invasion was a stunning success, routing the Courts in just weeks. But it only created a security vacuum that gave rise to a tenacious insurgency initially composed of former Courts fighters, disaffected former warlords, and anti-Ethiopian nationalists. And with Mogadishu's economy all but destroyed after some recovery under the Courts, many young men resorted to banditry, only exacerbating the security problem.

Meanwhile, Ethiopian and government troops' disregard for civilian casualties—Madina hospital in downtown Mogadishu every day sees scores of civilians injured by Ethiopian fire—boosted public support for the growing and increasingly radicalized ranks of insurgents. By late 2007 the conflict had metastasized: the Ethiopians and Baidoa forces could not maintain day-to-day security, even in those places where they had large numbers of troops.

Now, more than a year after the Ethiopian invasion, it's clear that for the United States, the situation in Somalia is akin to Iraq following the 2003 invasion. Both wars have sown instability, created more extremists than they have destroyed, and have given homegrown insurgents common cause with co-ideologues worldwide.

If, before the 2006 invasion, there was scant evidence of violent Islamic extremism in Somalia, by late 2007 Somali insurgents were declaring themselves kin of al Qaeda, signing death threats to journalists with "the mujahideen," and borrowing weapons and tactics from their spiritual brethren in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon. Improvised explosive devices and Hezbollah-style rocket launchers made their first appearances in Mogadishu last year, forcing African Union peacekeepers to ride in blast-resistant trucks similar to those the U.S. military uses in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Blaming the United States

"This is an international war. It's not a war of terrorism. It's not a war of Somalis," said Abdullahi Shirwa, the director of Somali Peace Line, a Mogadishu-based nonprofit organization that facilitates conflict mitigation in that country. On Mogadishu's shell-pocked streets late in 2007, during conversations with everyday Somalis, I learned of their growing assumption that the United States was behind the Ethiopian invasion.

In December, a Mogadishu shop owner said that if the United States withdrew its support, Ethiopian troops might leave and Somalia would have a chance at peace. He added that he did not blame everyday Americans, rather U.S. leaders. But many Mogadishu residents do blame everyday Americans. For example, in a crowded downtown movie theater—a dirt-floored basement with a TV and VCR, really—hundreds of angry residents crowded around us, infuriated by the mere presence of an American. Weapons were brandished, violence threatened. I grabbed my fixers and guards and ran.

The only way the war will end is if the Ethiopians leave, Shirwa said, echoing the shopkeeper's assessment. "The American President has to put pressure on Ethiopia." Even many strident Somali nationalists recognize the need for a strong, neutral peacekeeping force to replace the Ethiopians. But last year U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said he would not support sending blue berets to Somalia. Citing the intensity of fighting in Mogadishu, he said U.N. troops were not a "realistic and viable" option. That left the fledgling African Union to bear the burden of initial peacekeeping duties.

Uganda, Burundi, and Ghana Enter the Fray

Early in 2007 the African Union authorized 8,000 peacekeepers for Mogadishu, but they would need years to train up, buy or beg required equipment, and arrange logistical support. The United States shelled out $79 million in funding. A 1,600-man Ugandan contingent was first to deploy, in March 2007, initially seizing the airport and the seaport. The U.S. firm DynCorp provided the necessary logistical support. In eight months, just five Ugandans were killed and six injured in periodic mortar, rocket, and small-arms attacks. "People were skeptical," Ugandan spokesman Captain Paddy Ankunda said. "But we are here, we are surviving."

In the handful of neighborhoods that the A.U. now controls, there is relative calm. The differences between A.U.- and Ethiopian-patrolled parts of town in November and December 2007 were stark. In Ethiopian-occupied Bakara Market, the city's main battleground, daily firefights and bombings have driven out most residents and vendors; many displaced shops have reopened around the A.U.'s position at the Kilometer Four roundabout, which links Mogadishu's airport and seaport to major roads out of the city.

The A.U. force's ethnic composition and tight rules of engagement, plus the free medical care it offers, have enabled them to win some consent, while the Ethiopians remain the enemy in the minds of many Somalis. Captain Ankunda said that many Somali refugees are in Uganda, and the two peoples have always gotten along.

That good will has thrust Ugandan commander Colonel Peter Elwelu into the seemingly unlikely position of neutral third party in the contested city. Elwelu said he extended an invitation to the Ethiopians, the transitional government, and insurgents to meet with him together or separately in the interest of understanding each other and discussing terms for peace. Elwelu's command post near Mogadishu's airport is now the only place where the city's warring parties meet peacefully.

Still, the current A.U. force is sufficient only for a "bridgehead," according to Ankunda. A widespread and lasting peace would require displacing the Ethiopians throughout Mogadishu. To make that happen, Ankunda said, the A.U. needs help—more money, more troops, more logistics.

Add to that international pressure on the Ethiopians. Elwelu said he would like to expand the Ugandan presence deeper into Mogadishu, ultimately taking over Bakara Market from Ethiopian forces. "The Ethiopians have to pull out. That's what they were supposed to do," Elwelu says. "We need to be more important in this process."

But as long as the United States supports the Ethiopian occupation, chances for an Ethiopian withdrawal are remote, and the U.S. contribution to A.U. peacekeeping is unlikely to make a lasting difference. The crisis U.S. policy and a new proxy strategy in Africa helped create will only deepen.

Mr. Axe is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., where he blogs at . He visited Somalia in November and December last year.

Mr. Axe is a freelance writer based in Columbia, South Carolina. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice

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