Published 05 Apr 07
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
The Tipping Point in Somalia
In last week's column, I warned that the situation in Somalia has become untenable: while the country's nominal "Transitional Federal Government" (TFG) is nowhere to be found and the Ugandan unit of the otherwise-yet-to-materialize United Nations-sanctioned "African Union Mission to Somalia" (AMISOM) is keeping a very low profile as mortars rain down upon its positions at the air and sea ports of Mogadishu, the Ethiopian intervention force that drove the radicals of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) from the city three months ago is fighting street-to-street with the resurgent militants and their newfound allies, engaging in epic battles recalling Black Hawk Down – complete with the charred and desecrated remains of fallen combatants being dragged through the streets – while nearly 100,000 residents have fled the city since February, half of them in the last two weeks.
The situation have only gotten more perilous in the past week as reports emerge of the worst fighting since the ill-starred international effort to intervene in the early 1990s. Last Thursday, Ethiopians decided to ratchet things up and deployed helicopter gunships against insurgent strongholds in the country's onetime capital. The next day, as the attack continued, the insurgents managed to down an Ethiopian helicopter that was engaging one of their positions, hitting it with an anti-aircraft missile. By Saturday morning, the Ethiopians had been forced to abandon their positions around the El-Irfid area of northern Mogadishu. Over the weekend, fierce artillery duels between the two sides along a line roughly extending from the old soccer stadium to Al-Hayat Hospital in the southern part of Mogadishu were reducing large swathes of what was left of the city into piles of rubble: the former presidential compound at Villa Somalia, for example, took no fewer than ten direct hits, one of which killed a Ugandan soldier, the first fatality among the AU peacekeepers. By Sunday, the International Committee of the Red Cross was reporting that local hospitals were no longer capable of handling the hundreds of wounded being brought in. Earlier this week, reports have come in that Ethiopia is pouring massive reinforcements into Somalia and directing them to Mogadishu – an ominous development that further complicates the conflict dynamics.
While the escalation is not unexpected – in a January column, I reported that one of the ICU's top leaders, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, had promised that "the Islamic Courts are still alive and ready to fight the enemy of God" even as he called on "every true Muslim to start an insurgency against the Ethiopian troops," and, following up three weeks ago, I noted that "the Islamist movement…is not only still alive, but continuing to organize likeminded extremists" and that "a new phase in the conflict" was about to begin – what is of particular concern is the rapid upgrade in tactical and operational capacity that the recent fighting has shown the insurgents to have achieved.
Up to now, the Islamists had essentially two ways to attack their enemies. The most common tactic employed by the insurgents was to transport a mortar to a crowded residential area near the intended target and, from the relatively safety of the human shield, fire a few rounds and then withdraw before the retaliatory fire began. While these mortar attacks inflicted little significant damage on their intended targets – and, conversely, cost the insurgents little in terms of men and materiel – they nonetheless secured two strategic effects. First, it kept the Ethiopian troops and, more recently, the Ugandan AMISOM force, largely confined to their fixed positions and gave the insurgents, at least for the duration of the shelling, relatively uninhibited run of the city. Second, when the Ethiopians and their TFG minions would emerge from their bunkers, their retaliatory rocket and artillery salvos would often rain down indiscriminately upon the civilian neighborhoods from which the insurgent mortars had opened fire. Then, when they undertook actual searches, they often entered private homes. These responses, while understandable, did little to endear the largely Christian Ethiopians to the local populace of Somali Muslims given the centuries old ethnic and religious enmities between the two peoples (that the TFG's soldiers are largely Darod clansmen from Puntland who are scarcely better regarded by Mogadishu's predominant Hawiye clan did not help matters much either). In fact, they enabled the Islamists, without shedding any of their extreme ideology, to nonetheless present themselves as nationalists.
The other tactic used by the Islamists has been the assassination, not only of government officials and military and security personnel, but also of nongovernmental activists and other independent voices. These killings are often of a preemptive nature, presaging outbreaks or escalations of conflict. For example, on March 14, just before the recent intensification in the fighting, gunmen shot and killed Abdi Isse Abdi, chairman of the Kasima Peace and Development Organization, an advocacy group based in the southern port of Kismaayo. The victim was killed while in Mogadishu to take part in a human rights meeting. Like the mortar attacks, the killings of individuals achieve a strategic effect for their radical perpetrators: in addition to eliminating individuals who have somehow run afoul of the Islamist creed, each assassination also diminishes by that much more the already limited space of Somali civil society and leave the ordinary masses with little more than two choices, the hated foreigners and their ineffectual puppets on one hand and the radicals-cum-nationalists on the other.
As effective as these two tactics have been for the advancement of the radical Islamists' objective of regaining the position they lost, the recent fighting has revealed three others which are even more worrisome over the long term. First, the insurgents have acquired the ability to take down aircraft: in addition to the shooting down of the Ethiopian helicopter, there is the downing of the Belarusian-operated Ilyushin-76 cargo plane which I reported last week. Second, the insurgents have gained enough confidence and accumulated enough firepower to abandon their hit-and-run mobile mortar assaults in favor of open artillery duels. Third, the insurgents have begun to use the roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devises (IEDs) which have been a bane to United States and other Coalition forces in Iraq: just this past Sunday, a tightly packed Ethiopian military convoy was destroyed near Bali-Dogle, about 100 kilometers southwest of Mogadishu, when one of the vehicles detonated a roadside bomb. All three of these shifts in combat tactics not represent major advances on operational capacities relative to just a few months ago when the ICU was forced to abandon urban centers when confronted by Ethiopian conventional forces, but they also point to significant outside inputs from transnational jihadi networks.
Consequently, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, one must take seriously last week's announcement by al-Qaeda that it had taken the Somali Islamists under its wing and formally appointed one of the ICU's most radical military commanders, the Afghanistan-trained Adan Hashi 'Ayro, as the transnational terror network's "emir" in Somalia. And it would be reasonable to assume that al-Qaeda's public endorsement is already been accompanied by substantial infusions of both men and materiel, although some of the latter may have also been independently contributed by other states with their own vested interest in either destabilizing Somalia or thwarting Ethiopia or both (Isaias Afewerki's Eritrea comes to mind). Whatever the case, a tipping point has been reached in Somalia and the challenged posed by the insurgency to regional stability and international security has increased dramatically.
While I continue to stand by the counsels I offered last week – "formally acknowledge de jure what is already de facto: the desuetude of 'Somalia' as a sovereign subject of international law"; "establish formal benchmarks for responsible governance within the former Somalia against which the regions or clans or whatever entities the Somali people themselves choose to organize for themselves will be measured"; "redefine the role of the African 'peacekeepers' to keeping the peace along Somalia's borders with other countries in the subregion, rather than trying to use this force to assert the questionable claims to authority by a clearly unpopular 'government' like the TFG"; and recognizing that "preemptive action to prevent terrorists from gaining a foothold in Somalia" may occasionally be called for – developments call for particular attention to the last-mentioned aspect of the strategy.
U.S. and allied forces in the region – the chief American assets available are the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), based at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command's Fifth Fleet operating in the waters of the Gulf of Aden and the nearby Arabian Sea – need to step up their interdiction efforts to prevent the flow of men and weapons into Somalia from monitoring to active enforcement (legal authority for this already exists under UN Security Council Resolution 733 embargoing all weapons deliveries to Somalia and its successor resolutions). America and its allies must also keep all options open: containing the spread of insecurity throughout the Horn may well require preemptive action. While we should be wary of efforts which involve outsiders imposing an alien entity like the TFG on reluctant Somali clans that should be allowed to discern their own future, political neutrality does not mean indifference to the terrorist threat. In the end, it might serve both our security agenda and the long term interests of the Somali peoples if means can be found to decapitate the radical Islamist leadership of the insurgency before it completely hijacks the legitimate aspirations and grievances of ordinary Somalis and thus acquires near-unstoppable momentum across this geopolitically significant bridge between the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.
– J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs and a Research Fellow of the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over one hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies.
© 2007 J. Peter Pham
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