Ethiopia gives US New Year gift

NAIROBI — Under fire at home for costly military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US government has managed to achieve a major policy goal in strategic Somalia without firing a shot —  thanks to Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian military, one of the continent’s strongest, decisively routed Islamists both Washington and Addis Ababa viewed as a risk to their interests in Africa and beyond.

Ethiopia’s patience ran out when the Islamists were on the verge of over-running Somalia’s interim government. With what diplomats in the region assume was tacit US blessing, its tanks, jets and troops overwhelmed the Islamists in two weeks.

“Washington encouraged Addis Ababa to go ahead. They provided the same sort of diplomatic cover they did for Israel going into Lebanon last summer, and for similar reasons — to keep a foothold in the region,” said analyst Michael Weinstein.

“Ordinary Americans are fed up with foreign interventions. So what’s happened in Somalia is now going to be a preferred strategy — using allies in the region as their catapult,” said Weinstein, a politics professor at Indiana’s Purdue University.

Western military sources say the United States gave Ethiopia intelligence and surveillance help to accelerate its victory.

Both Washington and Addis Ababa had portrayed the Islamists as linked to and even run by Al Qaeda, putting Somalia firmly on the map of the US-led global “war on terror”. Yet President George W. Bush, haunted by such moments as his premature declaration of victory in Iraq in 2003, and his Africa policy-makers are unlikely to be crowing victory quickly.

Some analysts predict the Islamists, who fled rather than take heavy casualties, could regroup and fight an Iraq-style insurgency from remote corners of Somalia, or carry out bomb attacks elsewhere in east Africa.

“The parallels with Iraq are unsettling,” said Nairobi-based Somalia expert Matt Bryden. There is no guarantee of peace and harmony in Somalia now that six months of Islamist Sharia rule are over.

Indeed, the rapid return of warlords to Mogadishu shows how easily it could slide back into the anarchy and chaos it has suffered since dictator Mohammad Siad Barre was ousted in 1991.

“The Americans have learned enough in Somalia not to run up a ‘mission accomplished’ banner,” Bryden said. “There probably is great relief in Washington… The Ethiopian offensive was successful, civilian casualties were not too many. But there is no room for complacency.”

Americans with good memories know that only too well.

A disastrous attempt by US forces to pacify Somalia in the early 1990s began with Marines crawling up the beaches of Mogadishu in full combat gear, only to find a phalanx of waiting Western journalists rather than a hostile army.

It ended with a humiliating withdrawal after Somali armed groups shot down two US helicopters, killed 18 soldiers and dragged their bodies through the streets.

“…The [American] public would not have tolerated an overt intervention again,” a European diplomat said. “It’s worked out ok for the Americans after the mess they first made.” Early last year, Washington was vilified in east African diplomatic circles for secretly sending money to Mogadishu warlords who promised to catch “terrorists.” That fuelled popular resentment against the warlords, who ran Mogadishu via checkpoints and extortion, and gave the Islamists a perfect rallying cry to rise up and take the city.

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