By Amitabh Pal

December 27, 2006

The United States has been concerned about Islamist fundamentalist militias operating in Somalia. These militias contain some extremely vile elements and allegedly have ties to Al Qaeda. They have laid siege to the Ethiopian-backed interim Somali government and have not only threatened to impose Shariah law on the country but also to export their agenda. The Ethiopian government cites the Islamist threat as the reason for its operation. The United States has not only given its approval to the invasion, but has troops in Ethiopia training the country’s soldiers, and is providing intelligence to the Ethiopian armed forces.

The Bush Administration is so spooked by the specter of Islamic fundamentalism that it’s willing to overlook the dangers of the conflict sparking off a larger conflagration.

Alas, there are no good guys in this war. Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi is a nasty piece of work. He has been a darling of the United States ever since the Clinton Administration’s time, when he was hailed as being part of the “African renaissance.” The war on terror has drawn Zenawi, a Christian leader of a religiously mixed but Christian-dominated country, closer to the Bush Administration. African renaissance man or not, he has been ruthless in his exercise of power. For instance, Ethiopian security forces killed nearly fifty people in November 2005 in a crackdown on protests. They also arrested thousands, including politicians, journalists, and activists.

“Government officials and security forces in much of Ethiopia make routine use of various forms of human rights abuse to deter and punish dissent,” Human Rights Watch states. “Many independent journalists, editors, and publishers continue to endure harassment and intimidation, and criminal penalties for a range of speech-related penalties remain on the books.”

In fact, opposition groups speculate that Ethiopia’s invasion has less to do with the threat from its neighbor and is more an attempt to unite the country around the leadership of the unpopular Zenawi regime. Somalia and Ethiopia have been at loggerheads for a long time, and fought a full-fledged war in 1977. Attacking Somalia is a way for Zenawi to score cheap political points, with (hopefully for him) minimal casualties for the Ethiopian army.

Also, the Ethiopian government is quite possibly manipulating intelligence to fool the United States into thinking the threat from the Somali Islamists to be bigger than it actually is.

“An American expert on the Horn of Africa told the Christian Science Monitor that the new U.S. interest in Somalia is being ‘driven mainly by general perception and exaggerated Ethiopian intelligence,’ ” writes Professor Asgede Hagos of Delaware State University. “The Tigrayan-dominated Ethiopia regime and the Somali warlords it has created and/or supports have every reason to paint Somalia as a terrorist playground. Explaining their motivation, an expert knowledgeable about the security situation in Somalia, put it this way: ‘The new game in Somalia is to call your enemy a terrorist in the hope that America will destroy him for you.’ ”

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration is so spooked by the specter of Islamic fundamentalism that it’s willing to overlook the dangers of the conflict sparking off a larger conflagration. Ethiopia and Eritrea (till 1991 a part of Ethiopia) can’t stand each other, and fought a ruinous border conflict in 1998. Eritrea is siding with the Somali Islamists as a way of getting back at its larger and more powerful neighbor. Zenawi is already taunting the Eritreans with statements such as, “The only forces we are pursuing are Eritreans who are hiding behind the skirts of Somali women.” Does the Bush Administration really want a three-nation war in the region?

U.S. policy in Somalia is born out of desperation. The United States abandoned Somalia after its failed mission in the early 1990s, and looked the other way as the country was mired in anarchy for the next decade. It was only recently that the Bush Administration, frightened by Islamic fundamentalism, began a dubious policy of handing out cash to Somali warlords as a way to check the Islamist militias. (See my June 20, 2006, piece for an earlier analysis of the situation.)

The human toll of the invasion is increasing day by day. Plus, the U.S. backing for the invasion will add to its unpopularity on the continent and in the Middle East. The African Union and the Arab League have called for Ethiopia to pull out, as have Kenya and Djibouti. The United States should firmly add its voice, and instead of backing military adventures should invest in the Somali peace process as a way of staving off the Islamist threat.