Somalia is the forgotten front in the “War on Terror.” Americans are rarely told anything about what goes on there, who the actors are and, more importantly, the reasons behind conflict in the Horn of Africa. Hence it is not surprising that there has been no concerted activist challenge to U.S. support for Ethiopia’s war in Somalia, but such a challenge is urgently required.
Last month, Human Rights Watch released a report which clearly set out how badly the recent war in Somalia has failed its people and what tragedy it has become. Entitled “Shell Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu,” the report argues persuasively that Ethiopia’s December 2006 invasion of Somalia has “generated a human rights and humanitarian crisis on a scale not seen since the early 1990s.” That is, in a country that has seen near constant inter-clan fighting for sixteen years.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in battles between Ethiopian forces and the insurgency that their presence has provoked. As HRW notes, in two major battles in Mogadishu (in March and April 2007), “The Ethiopian forces also appeared to conduct deliberate attacks on civilians,” while the puppet transitional government, which they are propping up, “totally failed to give warnings of offensives, pillaged property and interfered with humanitarian assistance, launched campaign of mass arrests and mistreated those they captured.”
Between March 29 and April 1, Ethiopian forces targeted the neighborhoods of Casa Populare, Towfiq and Ali Kamin in the Somali capital, attacks which led to a “devastating” impact on civilians, over 400 of whom were reported killed. Then, from 18 April to 26 April, the Ethiopians attacked again – this time in the northeast section of Mogadishu, and with similar brutality. HRW suggests that 300 died in this round of fighting, although numbers are necessarily approximate. Nobody is counting Somali bodies.
Along with the tragedy of civilian deaths, moreover, these attacks uprooted thousands of residents, forcing them into an exodus to makeshift camps outside Mogadishu. The transitional government has not just ignored those refugees, it has actively thwarted attempts by aid agencies to reach them and to treat children suffering from disease and malnutrition. Meanwhile, the Ethiopian offensives targeted crucial infrastructure which could mitigate civilian suffering. As the report relates, “[the Ethiopian forces] appeared to conduct deliberate attacks on civilians, particularly attacks on hospitals,” while they systematically looted medical supplies for their own purposes.
The report also hints at the daily reality of occupation, noting a pattern of carnage in which insurgents strike Ethiopian or government targets. This then sparks a military (and brutal) response from the occupiers, which ignites popular resistance still further. Until its occupation unravels, however, Ethiopia will continue to inflict “sustained rocket bombardment and shelling of entire neighborhoods” as reprisals for popular resistance.
These are abuses which amount, in the words of Human Rights Watch, to war crimes. HRW also applied the designation to “all parties” – including the insurgency which its researchers accuse of “deploying…[in] densely populated civilian areas” while “possibly used civilians to purposefully shield themselves from attack.” These are shameful acts, but also not unexpected from people trying to defend both their country and their homes from outside attack.
To its credit, the report singles out the occupier for its sharpest accusations, but it also makes another telling accusation. The war crimes being perpetrated in Somalia, it charges, “have been met with a shameful silence and inaction on the part of key foreign governments and international institutions.” Governments around the world have been silent or, worse, complicit in Ethiopia’s sub-imperial atrocities.
Complicity is not too strong a word. In fact, the Bush administration has been overseeing Somalian affairs since at least early 2006. In June 2006, a coalition of warlords sought to enter and take Mogadishu – causing a series of battles in which hundreds died. As it turned out, and popular rumor is backed up by the majority of regional analysts, the so-called Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism was cobbled together by the CIA and Ethiopia.
When that failed, rumors began emerging from Uganda and Baidoa, the only city controlled by the transitional government of Somalia. The Observer reported in summer 2006 that after the APCRT debacle, private military firms based in Virginia had been linking up the Ugandan government with Addis Ababa and the TG for a renewed assault on Mogadishu, which was by then controlled by the Islamic Courts Union. Letters from the employees of Select Armor and ATS Tactical discussed how their forces could avoid “another Dien Bien Phu” in Somalia. This presumably meant how they could draw the forces of the ICU into open confrontation without losing their supply lines, as the French did in Indochina.
By now, several hundred Ethiopian troops were in Baidoa, protecting the TG, and the presence of these forces – compounded by a baffling UN report which attempted to link the Islamic Courts with Hezbollah and Iranian uranium deals – meant that peace talks floundered. The Courts would not negotiate with the TG while it was a tool of the Ethiopians.
Meanwhile, with the collapse of the CIA backed warlords and the strategic retreat of the TG to Baidoa, the Islamic Courts were free to expand into other areas of Somalia, such as the southern port of Kismayo, which they captured easily, yet by expanding they gave the impression of launching a military conquest. This allowed Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi to pose as threatened by the Courts, which he duly did, using the language of Muslim-Christian conflict to arouse American support.
But the November 2006 UN report on the arms embargo on Somalia proved the final nail in the Islamist coffin. It was this report, more than anything else, which doomed the Courts to becoming another front in the War on Terror and another one launched under cover of a blitzkrieg of lies.
The report was packed with exotic fabrications, with the transparent intention of priming Somalia for a UN approved attack. For instance, its compilers presented “evidence” that 700 Somalis had travelled to Hezbollah in 2006 to fight against Israel. This was obvious nonsense. As Andrew McGregor of the Jamestown Foundation noted, “With an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 trained fighters in the ICU, the decision to send fighters to Lebanon would have stripped the Somali Islamists of nearly a third of their best men.” Moreover, while “Hezbollah did not even commit its reserves during the fighting with Israel…according to the report, Hezbollah shipped arms, which it needed in the middle of a war, to Somalia in exchange for foreign fighters that it did not need.”
The prospect beggars, and beggared belief, but that did not stop major media outlets reporting it seriously, without consulting an expert like McGregor. The Washington Post reported that “Iran, Syria, Libya, Egypt and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon are providing arms, training and financing to Islamic militants as they seize political and military control in the East African state of Somalia.” Reuters reported the UN document as arguing that “A web of nations and armed groups are fuelling Somalia’s march to war…[while it painted] the most comprehensive picture yet of disparate foreign interests hardening into alliances with Somalia’s interim government and its powerful Islamist rivals.”
A week after the report was leaked to Reuters, and while the UN Security Council was debating its contents, then U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton summed up the U.S. position, stating that “we have looked at the situation in Somalia, and I think there’s pretty general agreement that we need to do something as opposed to just watching the situation deteriorate.”
A few days later, the U.S. submitted a resolution to the Security Council that would have massive repercussions (and would also be very poorly reported). As Bolton told reporters, the resolution sought to “[endorse] the efforts of IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) states and the African Union to deploy a peacekeeping force in Somalia and support a partial lifting of the arms embargo for the purpose of assisting the force and associated training,” That is, it managed to lift the arms embargo on Somalia selectively to endorse a gathering Ethiopian invasion of the country and to empower one faction of warlords against the rest.
With this resolution now rubber-stamping an act of aggression against the Islamic Courts, in favor of the Transitional Government, the Ethiopians then sought a casus belli as soon as possible. As Islamic Courts fighters advanced on Baidoa in December 2006, they fell into the “Dien Bien Phu” trap, which came off perfectly, ending with the rout of the Courts’ forces as Ethiopian and TG troops marched into Mogadishu. But this only began the tragedy of Mogadishu, and the criminal occupation, again – an occupation founded on a lie.