Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

"Islamist victory in Somalia," September 4, 2006.

Somalia and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia When the famous American historian, Samuel P. Huntington, came to Toronto to deliver the 2005 Grano lecture series on the American Empire, he developed the position that there is no American empire because "we didn't exercise direct rule over other people by and large." The United States, he said, "needs the cooperation of...major regional powers to accomplish anything in world affairs. But, on the other hand, the United States, as the only superpower, is generally able to veto international actions proposed by any coalition of these other major actors"

Over the last two months, the unexpected stalemate in Israel's war with Hezbollah and Lebanon along with an expanding civil war in Iraq gave Iran a boost on the international stage. Iran now appears poised to grind out yet another unexpected stalemate with the West in the Security Council. Meanwhile, these high profile disasters for Western governments have eclipsed what could eventually prove to be an equally important opportunity to engage non-state actors on a diplomatic level in Somalia.

On June 5, a militia aligned with the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) routed a US-backed coalition of warlords known as the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism (ARPCT). The fighting, which began in March and left hundreds dead, ended when the ICU declared victory in its struggle to control Mogadishu, Somalia's capital.

Western Journalists sometimes refer to the UIC as the Islamic Courts Council, or the Joint Islamic Courts, or the Supreme Council of Islamic Courts, or the Islamic Courts Union--sometimes using more than one in the same article. I have decided, for the sake of clarity, to use the slightly more common Union of Islamic Courts or UIC throughout.

The Islamic courts emerged in the late 1990s primarily in Mogadishu, and became the de facto judiciary in the capital after the collapse of the Somali government in 1991. The Union was formed from an amalgamation of different clan-based courts over the past two years.... The Islamists are a major force in Somalia and the UIC has gained credibility among the population by setting up schools and hospitals, as well as resolving legal disputes and maintaining a tough stance on law and order. In May this year, the UN Monitoring Commission in Somalia acknowledged that the UIC had become a major force "with organisational strength, leadership and, most importantly, will".

Although little noticed by the outside world, in 1999 the group began to assert itself in Mogadishu and increasingly came into conflict with the secular warlords. The warlords later joined together to resist the UIC's growing power by forming the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism (ARPCT) in February this year and immediately clashed with the UIC. The day following its June 5th victory in Mogadishu, the UIC laid claim to areas up to 100 kilometres around Mogadishu, and since then has expanded its control over many regions of south-central Somalia.

The most immediate cause of the conflict was the revelation that ARPCT had been receiving funds to arm itself from the United States through the CIA working with the Ethiopian secret services. Washington has officially neither confirmed nor denied support for the ARPCT, but on June 7 the New York Times reported that US government officials had privately acknowledged channeling hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year, through the CIA station in Nairobi, Kenya, to the ARPCT warlords so they could purchase arms on the international black market.

John Predergast, of the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based neo-liberal think tank, told MSNBC on June 5 that the CIA "payments have been between $100,000 and $150,000 [US] per month".

The impact of the UIC victory has been the collapse of the warlords' power and of their militias. Security improved markedly in Mogadishu and the re-opening of Mogadishu airport to international flights and the seaport to international shipping, after 11 years, offered a concrete illustration of the changes the UIC claims to want to bring to Somalia.

The ICU's ability to impose order has brought it tangible benefits of regional and international support. On August 3, the United Nations sent a ten-member delegation to Mogadishu to make preparations for the resumption of humanitarian aid to the city. On August 8, the Somali Trader's Union of Banaadir Region donated US$300,000 to the ICU, promising more contributions in the future and pledging to participate in the Courts' "social work." On August 11, Kenyan air carrier African Express Airways announced that it was instituting three regularly scheduled flights per week from Mogadishu's airport, commenting that the airport and the city's seaport were "fully functioning." (Weinstein PINR Aug 18 06)

Diplomats fear Somalia could become a battleground for war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Both countries deny involvement in Somalia, but a UN Security Council report said Eritrea has sent weapons to the UIC repeatedly, and witnesses say thousands of Ethiopian troops have entered the country to support the TFG since July.

The TFG is the Transitional Federal Government. Created in 2004, TFG technically refers just to the executive arm of the Transitional Federal Institutions but the term TFG is widely used to describe the whole body that makes up Somalia's new government. While enjoying continued widespread international support, the TFG's detractors view it with suspicion. Many Somalis regard it as a creature of foreign interests, emerging as it did from lengthy, internationally brokered discussions in Nairobi.

The TFG is riven with disputes, culminating in a major disagreement between its president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, and prime minister, Ali Mohammad Gedi. In July 2006, more than 40 ministers resigned from the TFG, and on 7 August, the president dissolved the cabinet with the intention of announcing a new cabinet of just 31 ministers. Serious political differences within the government, clan-based differences and the risk of being overrun militarily by the UIC, make the coming months crucial in the TFG's survival.

Somalis are not alone in questioning the legitimacy and effectiveness of the TFG. After more than two years, it has had negligible success in promoting reconciliation or curbing the power of Somali warlords and their militias. Some ministers in the pre-June TFG cabinet were themselves former warlords. Nevertheless, the TFG is the only tangible result of a protracted, internationally brokered reconciliation process, and as such continues to be supported by the UN, United States, African Union and European Union. (IRIN)

For its part, Ethiopia is the strongest military power in the Horn of Africa, and has the most direct and intense interest in Somalia of any external actor.

Although supported by Washington, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is faced with too many problems to be a reliable proxy for Washington's attempt to roll back the rise of Islamism in Somalia.

To the west of Somalia's long border with Ethiopia lies the latter's Ogaden region, where ethnic Somalis predominate. In 1977, Somalia invaded Ogaden in order to annex it and create a Greater Somali state. Ethiopia won the ensuing war at considerable cost, and since then has faced a persistent insurgency.

With the rise of the UIC, Ethiopia fears that the insurgency could become more effective.

On August 10, Ethiopia's Ministry of Mines and Energy awarded the Malaysian oil company Petronas with a contract to develop the Calub and Hilala natural gas fields in the Ogaden. Petronas agreed to invest US$1.9 billion in the project and to build a refinery and a pipeline to Djibouti. The ONLF immediately reissued its warning to Petronas that Ethiopia is not in effective control of Ogaden and "is not in a position to issue licenses," adding that it would not permit the company to exploit the resources and declaring that Ogaden is a "conflict zone....The instability of the Zenawi government and the pressures on it not only limit its room to maneuver in Somalia, but also throw Ogaden into play and raise the risks for Petronas, which is aggressively seeking new reserves as the ones under its control are depleted." (PINR)

Adding to the heightened tensions between the ICU and Ethiopia, Somalia has natural gas and uranium and is believed to have substantial sources of oil.

The TFG has called for international peacekeepers, but that has been opposed by the UIC. The TFG itself was initially divided over participation in negotiations with the UIC, but finally agreed to talks which began in Khartoum in August.

In the last week of August, the Islamists opened a large militia training camp north of the capital, staffed by instructors from Eritrea, Pakistan and Afghanistan, residents near the camp said. (Reuters)

According to a June 6 BBC report, two of the Islamic courts are seen as "militant." One is led by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a former army colonel, who is believed to be connected with a new "jihadi" network that emerged around 2003. Aweys is considered by US officials to have terrorist links, and according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), on 26 June the US ruled out any diplomatic contact with him.

The extreme neoconservative Weekly Standard and the radical leftwing Guerilla Network News agree in seeing the UIC as a potential Somalian Taliban. But Somalia is not Afghanistan. The TFG is weaker than the Karzai govenrment, weaker than the Siniora government in Lebanon. And Somalian Islam is generally more moderate than bin Laden's Wahabbist variety.

Ahmed Sheikh Farah a Somali living in Washington DC says that except for Somaliland and Puntland, the region is "characterized by misrule, cyclical famines, environmental degradation and chronic underdevelopment."

There is now second round of talks between Somalia's transitional government and the Islamic courts going on in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

These events present an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the past, not only the mistakes that Canada and the US made in Somalia in the 90s, but also the mistakes that followed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon. The biggest mistake in each case was the pretense that "we don't talk to terrorists."

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