by Eric Margolis
Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia under cover of the Christmas holiday was a blatant aggression that is likely to widen the arc of conflict across the dangerously turbulent Horn of Africa. It also marks the opening of a new front in Washington’s war against Islamic militants and reformers.
Claims by Ethiopia that Somalia, a nation without any real military forces, threatened its border were as fanciful as assertions by Washington and Addis Ababa that the so-called "transitional government" they had installed in the town of Baidoa represented anything more than its own well-paid members.
The US-backed and financed Ethiopian offensive was clearly designed to crush the first stable government strife-torn Somalia has had in 15 years of civil war and anarchy. The new Islamic regime, known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), recently managed to bring law and order to much of southern and central Somalia. In the north, a secessionist group has proclaimed something called independent "Puntland."
The Union of Islamic Courts ended Somalia’s long civil war by crushing local warlords who were being armed and financed by the CIA. The US claims the Islamic Courts is a second Taliban-style movement containing "terrorists" involved in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa who will turn Somalia into a hotbed of anti-American subversion. The UIC denies these allegations.
More important, under the Bush/Cheney Administration, any movement that has the audacity to call itself "Islamic" immediately becomes a target of American hostility. The embarrassing total defeat of US-backed Somali warlords by the Islamic Courts militia led directly to Washington’s decision to press Ethiopia to invade Somalia.
Ethiopia has one of Africa’s more powerful, well-trained armed forces with over 1,300 tanks and a modern air force that are now increasingly equipped and aided by the United States.
The repressive regime of strongman Meles Zenawi seems the antithesis of President George Bush’s calls for democracy, but has become a primary ally of Washington that is seen as a bulwark against Islamic forces in Africa. Washington has quietly supported Ethiopia in its long border war against its bitter foe, Eritrea. In recent months, the Eritrea has become an important supplier of small arms and munitions to Somalia.
Somalia’s ragtag Islamist militias are helpless against Ethiopian tanks, artillery and attack aircraft. Ethiopia’s army could quickly occupy all of Somalia, but it would then be very hard-pressed to protect its long, vulnerable supply lines against attack by Somali guerilla forces.
Ethiopia has enough men to wage a two-front war against Somalia and Eritrea, but a prolonged conflict would seriously undermine its fragile economy. Accordingly, Ethiopia’s likely strategy is to protect the western-imposed rump regime in Baidoa and launch attacks to prevent the UIC from consolidating power. But involvement by traditional enemy Ethiopia will undoubtedly further inflame Somali passions and strengthen the Islamic Courts. The latest war in the Horn of Africa could easily widen into a wider conflict that involves Eritrea, strife-torn regions of southern Sudan and Uganda, and northern Kenya, which has many ethnic Somalis.
Equally important, prolonged war with Somalia could open fissures in unstable, multiethnic, multi-religious Ethiopia. Though usually depicted as a Christian nation, at least 50 percent of Ethiopians are Muslim, and 35–40 percent Christians. Ethnic Amhara and Tigrayans comprise 32 percent of the population, while long-oppressed, rebellious Muslim Oromo in the south account for over 40 percent.
Ethiopia’s Muslims have long sought a voice in their nation’s affairs but were brutally repressed by Ethiopia’s royalist, Marxist, and now, the Tigrayn regimes. Conflict with Somalia could re-ignite the Oromo independence movement and lead to the splintering of Ethiopia, producing a reverse mirror image of ethnic-religious strife between Sudan’s northern Muslims and southern Christians and animists.
What Washington should be doing is talking to leaders of the Islamic Courts to ensure Somalia is not used as a new base for al-Qaeda operations. This is a fair request that can be sweetened by offers of financial support and assurances the Ethiopians will be leashed. But this appears too subtle for the administration’s ham-handed crusaders who have already blundered into two lost wars and are now courting a third.