Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Sowing Somali Seeds Of Bitterness

A post on a topic that is admittedly a bit beyond my realm of regional expertise but definitely tied in to broader events throughout the Arab world: Somalia.

I wouldn't pretend to have all the details right on Somalia and freely invite more informed voices to speak up if I have anything wrong here. What follows is my attempt to describe what is going on, and then (where I feel a bit more comfortable) tie it in to what it means for the Arab and Islamic worlds and their relationship with the US more generally.

The current Ethiopian invasion of Somalia is receiving big attention in the Arab press as has the tension leading up to it. The big two media giants (Jazeera and Arabiya) on their websites are taking predictable angles: Jazeera (Arabic at least) is playing up the fact that the US government is supporting Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia (i.e., "the westerners are ganging up on the Muslims again"), while Arabiya is leading with the Transitional Somali Government's revelations of the dark "secret world" of the Islamic Courts Union (i.e., "yes, we at Arabiya are America's proud propaganda voice in the Middle East yet again since the failure of al-Hurra"). Don't have a lot of time to troll the Arabic websites right now, I presume everyone is taking their stereotypical positions. But the point is, this is receiving big coverage in the Middle East, most folks in the Arab world are convinced the west is out to get Muslims, and the actions of the US and Ethiopia mean this is yet another story that will play right into that belief regardless of any attempts by US-allied media in the region to say otherwise (i.e., actions still matter more than words).
  • Somalia has of course been in more or less a state of warlord-dominated anarchy for over a decade and a half. Most famous to Americans for the 1993 mission creep that led to the "Blackhawk Down" incident, but an ongoing open wound in East Africa much more critical than just that one incident.
  • Over the past few years, a set of localized attempts to bring some order and recreate a modicum of justice took the shape of Sharia (Islamic law) courts forming to adjudicate disputes, crimes, etc. and attached to those came enforcement officers, or if one wants to be more pejorative I suppose one could say these courts got their own local militias in order to enforce those judgements.
  • Those courts (which seem to represent a fairly diverse and non-homogenous set of interests in Somali society) did manage to coalesce into a new, unified force in Somalia. In those areas where they gained enough strength, they steadily began to take over from the warlords and create a semblance of order and rule of law in the south of Somalia for the first time in many years.
  • The perception I have following the Arab and English press on the courts (sorry, don't speak any Somali, my only experience being speaking to Arabic and English speaking Somalis over the years, overhearing Somali conversations which sound a lot like Arabic except that other than a few bits of vocabulary its totally incomprehensible to an Arabic speaker, oh and a cute Hijabed Somali girl on the bus speaking Arabic about myself and a friend many years ago (before I was married of course) thinking we couldn't understand and then blushing when we got off the bus and shot her a wink to show we heard and understood her) is that the reaction to the courts by the populace was as always with such things mixed, but tentatively willing to give them a chance since they seemed to be bringing order and justice so that people could live their lives (opening some ports and controlling piracy for the first time in many years for example).
  • The application of Shariah law by the courts appears to have been mixed as well. Stories of going to cultural extremes (banning world cup soccer match viewing), but also stories of top courts leaders denying this was their style and punishing those who did such things. The impression I got from this was that the Courts Union was again a non-homogenous group, that paleo-conservatives and modernists mix, and that this could be both a weakness and a strength. In any case, when not under external pressure and expanding their zones of control, the areas that fell under their control appeared to be generally seeing a revival of economic fortunes.
  • But those are big caveats: early on local, regional, and US actors have been part of the mix and the Islamic Courts Union does not appear to have had any time to enjoy genuinely unfettered control. There are multiple levels of rivalries going on here: [1] A few years ago the UN made yet another attempt to bring local actors together to create a transitional Somali government that could hopefully re-establish order. It had to meet outside Somalia for a long time and as of a few weeks ago was based in and only controlled the town of Baidoa. Weak, but internationally recognized. As it watched the rise of the Courts, of course its legitimacy was being undermined. The Courts, sensing their popular strength, actually called for democratic elections, knowing their people stood a strong chance of beating out the characters fromt the UN recognized government and in fact the leaders of the Courts could plug into that power structure now through legitimate democratic means. The leaders of the transitional government were having none of that and instead began labelling the Courts Al-Qaeda harborers and the like, aimed at manipulating and strengthening their support from the US, western countries, and the UN. They appear to have succeeded. [2] A proxy battleground for Ethiopia and Eritrea. The two have a long-running set of grievances and have gone to war more than once, and now the Courts and Transitional Government are providing the proxies necessary to go to war again, this time in Somalia. Traditionally Christian Ethiopia (although today it's population is about half Muslim) is backing the Transitional Government and sees in the Courts a potential revival of Somali threats to their territory in the ethnic Somali Ogaden region of Ethiopia which past Somali states have sought to claim sovereignty over. Ethiopia is also going all out accusing the Courts of harboring Al-Qaeda, foreign fighters, etc, etc. (somebody even started circulating a ridiculous report in intelligence circles a while back that Somali Courts fighters aided Lebanon's Hizbullah in their summer war against Israel, though that could have been westerners creating boogeymen and not necessarily Ethiopia). Eritrea is supporting the courts, though I don't have a good sense other than a few troops of what that support actually consists of. [3] The Bush Administration once again lining up against Islamists as the great boogeymen. Falling right in line with Dick Cheney's "One percent doctrine" of blowing any bit of paranoia massively out of proportion (i.e., trying to kill that mosquito on your forehead with a shotgun blast), they've willingly bought into every story of potential Al-Qaeda harboring or sympathy amongst the courts. Now, I'm not going to go overboard and say there couldn't be some kernels of truth in there - as I said, the Courts seem to be a pretty motley crew - but the top leaders seem to have taken a lesson from the Taliban and recognized they can't try to become Taliban Afghanistan or else they're finished and stated about as much in not-too-subtle public language. Words are one thing, the point from the US is that for some time now, labelling the Courts as Qaeda-proxies, the CIA has been arming Somali warlords to fight the Courts. Didn't do much good, the Courts have been getting weapons and have more motivated fighters and have managed to take town after town under their control. In any case, the reports I've read seem to suggest that folks inside the USG recognized that what they were doing in Somalia was a pretty ad hoc and potentially dangerous affair, but they've been marching down the path regardless. [4] A melding of 2 and 3 now appears to be going on. The Courts were winning the battle, the US' allies lost over and over and appeared headed towards inexorable defeat on the battlefield (since the ballot box option was not allowed despite the Courts' suggestion) absent some outside intervention. Enter Ethiopian troops defending the Transitional Government's one base at Baidoa. These outsiders are not folks most Somalis would take kindly too, but there they were, at first only called "advisers". Now in the past week it's come to direct war as the Ethiopians decided they weren't going to allow the Courts to win and betting that they had such overwhelming firepower they could bring the Transitional Government victory. So far the main war appears to be going just that way.

Now is where things get more dangerous and start to blow into bigger proportions. As Abu Aardvark likes to frequently say, Bin Laden and co these days are less about being an organization out to carry out direct attacks (though that still persists) as they are about changing the world view of as many Muslims as possible into believing the "Christian Crusaders" are out to destroy Islam. That, I believe, is a far more important battle than any bullets, smart bombs, suicide bombs, or phantom- or real-WMDs. It is also the essence of why the Bush Administration is such a set of royal screw-ups, why things keep getting worse everywhere Bush and co stick their noses in the Islamic and Arab worlds, and why Somalia is poised to become yet another disaster for US foreign policy (and yet again putting the focus on what it means to the US while the rest of the world more or less ignores the humanitarian, economic, political, and social disasters it will create locally and regionally for Somalia and the Horn of Africa). Uh...what was my point after that run-on sentence...oh yes, this is going to be yet another Bushie disaster because the important thing in the long run for creating peace, stability, freedom fries (something for American lefties, righties, and realists in there) is to not allow Salafi Jihadists (who have zero chance of ever winning power militarily or at the ballot box) to "win" by letting their "clash of civilizations" worldview become the guiding worldview of the majority of Muslims and Arabs. The actions of the US and its allies in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, etc. all are massive examples of which give credence to this worldview. US support for secular dictators throughout the Islamic world is another. Now it looks like Somalia will be added to the list (and once again, the US public will be sleeping as it happens and left ignorantly pondering "why do they hate us" the next time something nasty happens as a result).

Look at it from the point of view of your average dude on the streets of Cairo, Casablanca, Damascus, Karachi, Jakarta, or wherever else. You don't have to agree with this view (I for one don't), but this is how it looks to them today:

  • Shariah is considered a positive ideal for how law and order should be administered.
  • Somalia was in anarchy until recently some religious Somalis banded together to implement Shariah. In so doing they brought back peace, stability, and justice where they had power.
  • The US saw the rise of "true Muslims" and wouldn't tolerate it.
  • The US first tried to stop these Muslims from doing their good by re-arming thugs and warlords, but that failed.
  • When that failed, the US turned to Christian foreigners (Ethiopia) and aided them in a war to wipe out the good Muslims who were just trying to bring back peace and justice to their country.
  • Bin Laden had been saying for years that the "Crusaders" were out to harm Islam in Somalia, and suddenly it looks like his warning was right all along and coming to open fruition.

Even though this version of events is frought with error and over-simplicity, it has enough truth, and the Bush Administration's policies are so genuinely dangerous and aggressive, that one has to ask, what in the world could they possibly say to turn the tide of public opinion in the Islamic world to their side of things? Answer: nothing. Once again, actions matter more than words, and US actions here are just plain wrong. That's not to say the other actors are pure and right (they're not), but it means that the sheer stubborn-headed automatic resort to the ugliest uses of force (direct or proxy) by the US and its allies instead of recognizing that there are genuine non-Qaeda interests and issues at play that need to be worked with in a complex manner -- that therein lies the real problem. Bush's "gut" and Cheney's "one percent" self-induced-fear-mongering are the real sources of the problem here.

In Somalia, I would presume (again, welcoming input from those who know more) that events are likely to take a course something akin to the US in Afghanistan but with Ethiopia playing the role of the US and the Courts Union the role of the Taliban. Ethiopia may win hands down at first, but then the real action starts to build up in a guerilla war that has implications beyond just the borders of Somalia. A Christians-attacking-Muslims dynamic will be an easy propaganda drive for the Courts and attract foreign fighters with fresh and nasty skills acquired from Iraq and Afghanistan though local Somali fighters will undoubtedly be the bulk of the troops. An Ethiopian and Somali Transitional Government "support us because we're fighting the terrorists here so you don't have to in Iowa" call should ensure easy continued US support, while the Transitional Government's de jure recognition by the UN should ensure broader international support, regardless of any lack of on-the-ground legitimacy they have in Somalia, especially now that they've openly shown they can't survive without Ethiopian assistance.

Folks, the point is simple: the Bush doctrine creates conflict and war everywhere it goes that convinces people in the Muslim world that Americans are out to get them. That in turn fuels conflict (for you Americans: that means it makes you less safe, not more safe) and makes the world a worse place. Somalia is about to become the next totally unnecessary-but-tragic example of this. And Americans are barely even watching. Get ready for another bit of blowback, as if we didn't have enough on our hands already.


At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This situation will not stay the same for long, the Somali’s don’t want the Ethiopians there so they will end up in the same “bass ackwards” situation that we are in Afghanistan right now. I am Christian and a former Marine and I believe a proponent of democracy. However, the choice here is either to support the warlords who I can’t even begin to list the atrocities they committed against the general population of Somalia or the Islamic Courts Union, who have provided at least a degree of stability to this nation.

The people of Somalia are predominately Muslim, so it really is their choice. The people of Somalia do not want the Ethiopians in their country and will fight, the more we push on the Ethiopian / Warlord side, the more the people will push back and the more innocent children, women and men who will die needlessly.

Fact is, if we support the ICU and the people of Somalia, show good will, help rebuild infrastructure, build schools, roads and hospitals with the words “A GIFT FROM THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES”, we have a better chance of having influence with that government and better chance of ever bringing true democracy to that country. We have to look long term, and in the long term, it would be best to support the ICU.

The media is hyping the “Taliban” stuff in order to mask our support of the warlords coalition and the US and UN’s overall failure in that part of the world.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger D. Ghirlandaio said...

A local expert agrees:
Salim Lone in the IHT

At 5:22 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

D. Ghirlandaio: Thanks for the link, adds a lot more local color than I could pull off the top of my head. A few obvious points I should have caught stood out in particular: the years of lawlessness in Somalia have of course spawned waves of refugees scattered throughout the region creating a ready-made situation for broader instability beyond Somali borders. The transitional government is dominated by the old-school warlords who lost to the courts because of the years of damage they did. The IHT piece takes a more directly positive view of the courts. I suppose the "Non-Arab Arab" in me naturally gravitates to that view, but I know I have to be careful of jumping to that conclusion as an outside non-expert observer. But maybe Salim Lone really is right.

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent essay; I've recommended it to my readers.

At 4:31 PM, Blogger Dancewater said...

NAA: the folks at www.dailykos.com are saying this about Somalia:


I thought about just copying your entire post, but really that is not considered 'cool' to do a post made up entirely of someone else's post - and I don't feel I understand this situation well enough to make stuff up.

But somehow, I think you could make an impact there - it is read by thousands a day of progressive Democrats - or so they say - and a little information could go a long way to inform the general public.

ditto for your Iraq stuff.

It does take a bit of time to redo the links, but once you write the post, I would think you could get it done in under 15 minutes.

hope you consider it. I am suggesting it not for my benefit or yours, but for the general education of Americans (they need it).

At 2:39 AM, Blogger janinsanfran said...

Thanks for this. I will try to see that more people read it.


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