December 26, 2006

Ethiopia risking long Somali war

Edmund Sanders in Nairobi
December 27, 2006

ETHIOPIA'S attacks against Islamic forces in Somalia may have delivered a short-term military victory, but analysts warn that a longer offensive could present the US ally with some of the same challenges facing American forces in Iraq.

Air strikes against the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and other towns on Sunday, Monday and yesterday demonstrated Ethiopia's military superiority over the Islamic forces that seized most of southern Somalia during the northern summer.

But Ethiopia would be hard-pressed to dispatch enough troops to capture and occupy Islamic-held areas of Somalia.

"I don't understand what Ethiopia's objective is," said David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia and now political science professor at George Washington University. "I can't imagine their objective is to occupy and hold Somalia. It was a very limited victory."

Most experts agree that Ethiopia's battle-tested army, with as many as 150,000 fighters, could easily beat Somalia's rag-tag Islamic troops, believed to number fewer than 10,000. But Islamists say they would compensate for their lack of numbers and sophisticated weaponry by pursing guerilla tactics, including suicide attacks, like those US and allied troops face in Iraq.

"The Ethiopians could get bogged down into a hopeless, long-term guerilla campaign with enormous supply lines," Dr Shinn said. "I don't see how they 'defeat' the Islamists in the long run."

The attacks since Sunday marked the first time Ethiopia has publicly acknowledged taking direct military action against Somalia's Islamists.

Ethiopian officials said they acted to pre-empt threats by Islamic forces to stage a "holy war" against them. Ethiopia is also moving to protect Somalia's weak transitional government, which has been battling Islamists for control. Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991.

Anger over the Ethiopian air strikes reverberated through Mogadishu on Monday. Radio stations played nationalist songs, recalling the history of tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia, which last went to war in 1977. Youths rioted in several Somali cities, urging all adult males to join the Islamic forces.

The Ethiopian strikes have helped unify the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders formed this year to defeat US-backed warlords. In recent months some cracks were beginning to appear inside the alliance over how rigorously to implement Islamic law.

But US and Ethiopian officials said extremists had seized control of the Islamic Courts, which they said had links to terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda.

"I used to think that the Islamic Courts Union were just another interest group, but now I recognise that they are standing up for the country and religion," said Muse Ali Omar, a banana vendor in Mogadishu. "Ethiopia is my enemy; I will not sell bananas any more. I will take my gun and go for jihad."

■ Reuters reported that Ethiopian troops were yesterday advancing on Mogadishu, claiming they could seize it within 24-48 hours, according to Somalia's envoy to Ethiopia, Abdikarin Farah. Ethiopian troops were 70 kilometres outside the Somali capital, he said.

But an Islamist spokesman warned any attempt to seize Mogadishu would end in disaster for Ethiopia. "It will be their destruction and doomsday," Abdi Kafi said.

Los Angeles Times

No comments: