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The war on terror comes to Africa

There are echoes of Afghanistan in the Horn of Africa, writes Nick Dearden. Will a quick victory for a foreign-backed warlord government be followed by further instability and an Islamist insurgency?

February 1, 2007
8 min read


Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


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Since early January 2007, US planes have pounded Somali villages, inflicting serious ‘collateral damage’ in their search for three ‘al-Qaeda operatives’. Hundreds of people have been killed, although the exact number is difficult to ascertain, with close to zero verification of facts on the ground. As the war in Afghanistan still rages, recent history repeats itself in the Horn of Africa.

Statements from the Bush administration last year should have given ample clues as to what was to come in Somalia. Ethiopia, whose attack on Somalia was based on regional considerations, was defended by the US state department, which cited ‘genuine security concerns’. Ethiopia and Somalia have been unhappy neighbours for many decades. But the nod that George W Bush gave to Ethiopia’s action is the clearest sign yet that the region is high on the US agenda in its allconsuming ‘war on terror’.

Ethiopia was well aware of the role it was playing. Referring to the Somali Islamic Courts, the group which has until recently been de facto ruling Somalia, as a ‘terrorist group’, Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zanawi told the Washington Post: ‘It does surprise me that intelligent people in the 21st century could claim that if you respond to the terrorists with force, you spawn terrorism, but if you appease them, you somehow tame them.’ George W Bush couldn’t have put it better himself. But the history of the Horn of Africa shows that this is a dangerous game to play.

Cold war

Throughout the cold war, Ethiopia and Somalia were used as proxies, receiving billions of dollars worth of weapons while famines and wars raged. US support for Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from the second world war until 1974, ensured US access to the important spy base at Kagnew, while next door the Soviet Union backed Siad Barre’s ‘Marxist’ regime in Somalia.

On the back of US aid, Ethiopia developed one of the largest armies in Africa, which it used to devastate Eritrean society. As Haile Selassie’s policies became increasingly unpopular (100,000 peasants died in a famine, in response to which one of his ministers said, ‘If we could save the peasants only by confessing our failure to the world, it is better that they die’), he was overthrown by the army, with Mengistu eventually taking control of the ruling military committee, known as the Derg.

Ultimately, Mengistu preferred a relationship with the Soviets. Seeing Ethiopia as a more important prize than Somalia, the Soviet Union outbid the US, sending $9 billion in military hardware before Mengistu was ousted in 1991. Soviet aid allowed Mengistu to unleash terror on political opponents, as well as many ordinary civilians, and increase the war drive against Eritrea.

To add to the murky politics, Mengistu also received a little help from Israel, who bribed him to allow the deportation of Ethiopian Jews, whom it needed to bolster the Jewish population of Israel. Shortly after the deal, Israeli-made cluster bombs started falling on Eritrean towns. Across the border, the US supported Somalia. As early as 1977, the US promised to find allies who would be able to supply Somalia the military assistance that it would need to attack Ethiopia’s Ogaden region. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Pakistan rushed in with the required aid.

In 1980, the US signed an arms deal that allowed it access to Somali bases. Under Reagan, the US supplied more than $680million to Siad Barre, at least $195 million of which was intended for military use (dramatically higher when related aid is counted), despite congressional obstacles. The US claimed its relationship had a moderating impact on Somalia. Human Rights Watch disagreed, claiming that 50,000 of Barre’s own civilians were killed and half a million displaced in the late 1980s.

For the US and the Soviet Union, local suffering counted for no more than the proclaimed ideology of their proxy dictators. The important thing was the global edge that arming such countries could bring to their overall game.

Humanitarian intervention? As the cold war wound down, and Siad Barre was ousted from power, the US initiated a ‘humanitarian intervention’ to clean up the mess left in Somalia, which included a raging famine and rampant warlordism – although no mention was made of the role played by US support in creating this situation. The result of the 1992-1993 UN-backed ‘Operation Restore Hope’ was disastrous. It is estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 Somalis died before President Clinton terminated the operation, in response to the killing of 18 US soldiers in the infamous ‘Black Hawk down’ incident. But few questioned the purity of Bush senior’s motives.

Stephen Shalom was a notable exception. Writing in the early 1990s, Shalom detailed how the US military establishment was desperately searching for a post-cold war justification for its budget and the central position the military played in policy-making. The ‘war on drugs’ was used in Latin America, ‘sovereignty’ in Kuwait and ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Somalia.

These justifications served for the time being, but ultimately the attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 solved the problem. The war on terror had begun.

The war on terror

Like the cold war, the war on terror is an all-encompassing analysis of world affairs that ignores local reality in order to project US power.

The US administration has stated that the Union of Islamic Courts is ‘controlled by Al-Qaeda cell individuals’. This has supposedly justified US funding of the very warlords that threw its troops out of Somalia a decade earlier in Operation Restore Hope. In January 2006, an International Crisis Group expert reported that between $100,000 and $150,000 was being funneled by the US to the warlords in Kenya every month, effectively breaching the UN embargo on arms to Somalia. The money was sent through a Pentagon force that has been based in Djibouti since shortly after 11 September 2001.

The real tragedy is that Somalia, as with so many other places, is far more complex than the US or its Ethiopian ally would like to admit. Since 1991 there has been no stable government.

In 2004 Kenya, worried by the impact that a politicised brand of Islam in Somalia would have on its own Muslim minority, helped get agreement from various warlords to establish a transitional federal government (TFG). The TFG, itself made up of some very unsavoury characters, initially ‘ran’ Somalia from Kenya, and until very recently controlled almost none of the country. Nonetheless it has received international backing, as an attempt to unite the warring factions.

The Islamic Courts did not have international recognition, but did control most of Somalia. Verdicts on the Islamic Courts differ markedly. Many praise the stability that it brought after so many years of chaos and violence, in large part as a result of the extremely hard line that it takes on internal law and order. However, the International Crisis Group wrote in 2005 that ‘Islamist extremism has failed to take a broader hold in Somalia because of Somali resistance – not foreign counter-terrorism efforts.’

It was in this context that Ethiopia secretly stationed at least 8,000 troops in Somalia from the TFG capital in Baidoa. In October 2006, the Islamic Courts issued a threat to Ethiopia to leave Somalia, and Ethiopia, with US backing, decided it was time to invade properly, conducting air raids and entering the capital Mogadishu, as the Islamic Courts withdrew.

Ethiopia appears to have won, for now, with the warlords in the TFG installed as Somalia’s de facto, as well as de jure, government. Ethiopia claims 1,000-2,000 people have been killed with 4,000-5,000 wounded – while tens of thousands risk being displaced. Martial law has been declared to attempt to rein in the chaos that has returned to the streets of Mogadishu. The TFG is unstable, unpopular and broke, while the Islamic Courts are likely to re-start an insurgency.

Even more worrying is what this means for the future of the region, where the war on terror is now firmly implanted. Eritrea supports the Islamic Courts while Kenya supports the TFG; both are religiously mixed countries. Religious and ethnic divisions in Sudan are well known.

The situation has worrying similarities with Afghanistan – a quick victory for a foreigninstalled warlord government, triumphing over an Islamic group that threatens an insurgency, all as part of a simplistic world analysis based on the requirements of US power rather than the regional realities. Traditionally ignored by activists, it is time for the left to shine some light on this part of the world, which has already suffered massively for the strategic interests of the west.

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Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


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