Pete Buttigieg, Democratic candidate for president, is current mayor of South Bend, Indiana, in the Great Lakes region. South Bend is known nationally mostly as the home of Notre Dame University. Notre Dame is famous here in the American South as one of the traditional Northern powers in American college football and for a period of years in the last century a rival to the University of Alabama.
In 2008 “Mayor Pete” was back in the United States as a McKinsey Consulting “whiz kid” based from the Chicago office after his Rhodes Scholarship at England’s Oxford University and had joined the Washington-based Truman National Security Project, but had not yet become an officer in the United States Naval Reserve. In other words, he was taking a normal prep course to run for president. His membership in the Truman Project distinguishes him as a Democrat.
Where the “Tourists in Somaliland” piece misses the mark is failing to notice that USAID was supporting Somaliland, albeit in a constrained and unusual way. I am particularly aware of this because in the fall of 2007, as the resident director for East Africa based in Nairobi at the International Republican Institute, I was asked by IRI management to extend my unpaid leave from the law department at Northrop Grumman, the defense contractor, to stay past my scheduled January 2008 return to the States following Kenya’s December 2007 elections because of our new increased work for Somaliland. In particular we were tasked unexpectedly by USAID to open an office in Hargeisa and Somaliland parliamentary elections were scheduled for April 2008.
Northrop Grumman generously agreed to give me additional “public service leave” through June 1 so long as I promised to definitely be back at that time. As it turned out the April 2008 parliamentary elections were postponed, and sadly have faced serial postponements since, with the latest being challenged in court now. Somaliland presidential elections have continued successfully, however.
In the picture below I am visiting with the leadership of the Kulmiye Party on behalf of our USAID-funded IRI program in November 2007. Chairman “Silyano” is to the far right and I am next to him. Silanyo served as President of Somaliland from 2010-2017.
As late at least as mid-2008, US Government civilians and direct contractors were not allowed to travel to Somaliland, which is perhaps one of the reasons USAID was keen for us at IRI to ramp up and open an office. Later Buttigieg did work visits to Iraq and Afghanistan under contract to an unidentified US department. As an employee or partner at McKinsey as a US Government contractor Buttigieg would not have been able to go to Somaliland on business under ordinary circumstances to the best of my understanding. As employees of a Government-funded NGO working under a “Cooperative Agreement” with USAID rather than a “Contract” we at IRI were not subject to that restriction.
During our Election Observation Mission for the ill-fated Kenyan December 2007 election, we brought a group of observers from Somaliland under the Somaliland program. This was a successful endeavor for that program although their return was slightly delayed by the violence triggered by the Kenyan election fraud (see my piece “The Debacle of 2007” in The Elephant). Somaliland has continued to have peaceful presidential elections with incumbent parties accepting narrow defeats at the polls twice, including with Silanyo’s accession in 2010.
I am not sure whether Somaliland has been better off or worse off over these intervening years for not being formally recognized while agreeing sentimentally with the desire that the Somalilanders’ achievement of defacto independence be “blessed” legally.
One primary issue is the unsettled territory in the borderlands between Somalia’s Puntland state and Somaliland. See the latest in a new report from the Institute for Strategic Studies: “Overlapping Claims by Somaliland and Puntland: the case of Sool and Sonaag.” One of the key events in the history discussed in that report was the takeover by Somaliland of Las Anod after the defection of Ahmed Abdi Haabsade, former Puntland Defense Minister in November 2007, whom I met when he arrived in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa:
Here is the new 2019 World Press Freedom index from RSF, with the United States down to No. 48 (!) and France and the U.K. at 32 and 33 respectively. Namibia at 23, Ghana at 27 and South Africa at 31 lead SubSaharan Africa. Burkina Faso at 36 and Botswana at 44 also outrank the United States.
Thus, five African nations are ranked above the United States for press freedom this year according to Reporters Without Borders. The United States continues to rank above all of the East African nations.
Here are the East African Community member rankings:
South Sudan 139
Elsewhere in the East and Horn Region: Ethiopia 110; Somalia 164; Djibouti 173; Sudan 175.
And other “development partners”: Norway 1; Germany 13; Japan 67; UAE 133; Russia 149; Egypt 163; Iran 170; Saudi Arabia 172; North Korea 179
In a nutshell, the current chapter of war in Somalia has been underway since December 2006 with the Ethiopian invasion to restore the Transitional Federal Government which had been forced out of Mogadishu and was under threat of complete collapse in the face of fighters supporting the Islamic Courts Unions. There is a fair bit of fog on the details of the U.S. role. Secretary Condoleezza Rice wrote in one of her memoirs, No Higher Honor, that Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, already having expressed concern about spillover effects in Ethiopia from an extremist takeover in Somalia, called her on December 29 to let her know that his military was going in and, “Frankly, I did not try to dissuade him”. While there seems to be no surfaced evidence that we initiated the idea and some Americans involved in dealing with the Ethiopians could have been more discouraging at some prior point–clarity will await the historians–we nonetheless got directly involved without any public debate or disclosure to the American public. By the “go date” –just prior to December 29–we ended up providing air support and special forces hunting terrorists, at least, as well as coordinating with Kenya in the south as reported.
Rice’s memoir indicates she had no high regard or expectation regarding the TFG. She also writes that the Ethiopians were supposedly intending to be quickly in and out. Given these two factors, it is hard to understand exactly what was hoped for or expected (one has to be at least reminded of Libya or Afghanistan or Iraq where we were supposedly intervening militarily to prevent bad behavior without having a clear plan for the aftermath).
There has been some argument from commentators that we opposed the Islamic Courts Union because it was “Islamist”. The United States has close and supportive relations with a variety of Islamist governments, most conspicuously of course the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself which has had such a big ideological footprint in re-shaping education and worship among Muslims in Kenya, Somalia and throughout East Africa (and globally) so it does not make any sense to think that the U.S. supported a military ouster of the ICU just because they were Islamist rather than either tolerant or secular.
Nonetheless, Ethiopia had become a military ally of perceived importance and the invasion made sense for Meles Zenawi as head of a EPRDF regime that had its own reasons be concerned about a consolidating Islamist government regime next door, in an environment in which it had cracked down on political expression following a strong opposition showing and protests from the May 2005 election. For the U.S. I suspect that the motivator, in addition to supporting Meles, was the notion of the ICU as providing a “safe haven” for al Qaeda figures, including especially suspects in the Kenya and Tanzanian Embassy bombings, rather than issues more specific to the civil war or otherwise of internal governance. Al-Shabab has a long history with al Qaeda connected foreign fighters in leadership, and al Qaeda’s involvement in Somalia predated the ICUs by many years, although al-Shabaab it did not publicly and formally declare allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and become an open affiliate until 2012.
In 2002 the United States Central Command had established its base in Djibouti for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. In December 2006 the new “Africa Command”–AFRICOM–had been announced but did not become operational and take over the Somalia war in its Area of Responsibility until late 2008, or almost two years into the war. AFRICOM has continued to be headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany for ten years now and relies on the CJTF-HOA as its only formal “base” on the continent, although in layman’s terms it has many small “base-like facilities” with various “MILSPEAK” labels across the north and central parts of the continent. Journalist Nick Turse in particular has identified facilities for American readers who do not have the opportunity to see these locations for themselves by seeking records and public sources, while sparring with the AFRICOM public affairs function who seem to have orders to make sure only skeptics will report most of what AFRICOM does. Several of these facilities, such as Camp Simba at Manda Bay near the Somali border in Kenya, are particularly relevant to the warfighting in Somalia. See “Africa is a Command: from Bush to Obama to Trump“.
Following the Ethiopian action, in early 2007 the African Union AMISOM “peacekeeping” force was established to continue to defend the restored TFG and it’s internationally sponsored “transition”, with the EU funding the AU to pay for troops from Burundi, Uganda and other providers. In October 2011 Kenya entered the war with a land invasion from the south and roughly nine months later in June 2012 formally enrolled their Kenya Defense Forces fighters in the AMISOM mission for reimbursement. In September of 2012 Kenya AMISIM conducted a successful amphibious landing and joint attack with the Somali National Army and local militia, taking over the lucrative port at Kismayo, a regional charcoal and sugar smuggling venue that was controlled by al Shabaab and had been their key urban center since they were replaced from Mogadishu in 2011. Kismayo is capital of the Jubaland region that Kenya has long seen as a potential buffer beyond its own underdeveloped and ethnic Somali frontier. At present, Jubaland’s nascent regional government, led by former local warlord, is negotiating the possibility of resuming cooperation with the nascent Somali Federal Government, successor to the TFG, and is to hold a presidential election in August. Kenyan forces over the years have suffered significant, but officially obscured, losses in major attacks on two of their positions, but have generally avoided any sustained pace of conflict in supporting the regional Jubaland administration. Smuggling reportedly continues to be lucrative and shared by the KDF with al-Shabaab and non-al-Shabaab Jubaland Somalis. Kenyans at home have suffered high profile terrorist attacks from al-Shabaab and its supporters from both countries and the Kenyan “frontier region” seems to be more contested than at any time in the last 40 years, although political devolution seems to provide some examples of integration-supportive development progress. See “Now to that next step: evaluating the Kenya Defense Forces role in Somalia and Kenya’s security needs“.
Over the years since 2007 the war has ebbed and flowed on a seemingly sustainable, semi-permanent footing. Both the recognized government and al-Shabaab have territory and funding and some resilient will even if leadership seem frequently fluid. AMISOM expert and George Washington University Professor Paul Williams has suggested that AMISOM could reasonably hope to pass off to a Somali defense in as little as ten more years, which would mean we are slightly more than half-way through a 22-year mission.
For some reason, there seem to be disruptive elements in recent months aside from the continued high number of suicide bombings and the major January terror attack in Nairobi’s Westlands. First, there seems to be the strange notion that AMISOM should draw down troop numbers now because someone years ago guessed that something more like ten years rather than twenty would be adequate. This strikes me as quite irresponsible. Inertia is not a substitute for a strategy and tactics that adjust to interim successes and failures.
Second, the big increase in air strikes. The strikes are not explained other than announcements after each in which al-Shabaab fighters are said to have been killed and that the strikes were in support of operations of the Somali National Army and/or AMISOM or protecting our troops supporting same. Reportedly we only have around 500 “warfighters” of our own deployed so it is the volume of air strikes rather than personnel that represent a significant change and raise the question why?
Sometimes, the question of the deployment of 500 American warfighters can achieve major political resonance with the United States–such as the recent back and forth within the Administrations about residual deployment numbers for eastern Syria. Others, as in the case of Somalia seem nearly invisible.
Reading through the AFRICOM public communications, one gets the impression that the Command has a concern to re-assure our African “partners” (“partner” in this context means any government in the Area of Responsibility that is not off limits for reason of some egregious human rights situation or other policy matter that will agree to let us help them with training and capacity building in return for access and cooperation) that we are not going to abandon them to their “violent extremists” as we are calling the various Islamist guerrilla forces that use terrorism among their insurgency toolkits.
In the case of AFRICOM, the official “MILSPEAK” term for a ten percent drawdown in American forces in Africa associated with the new National Defense Strategy is “Optimization”. (One could suggest that this is the defense assistance analog to USAID’s “Self Reliance” focus coinciding with the Trump Administrations budget proposals to dramatically cut assistance budgets while increasing overall defense spending.) Of course we are all in favor of being optimal, and self-reliant, just like we all want to be best, but these kind of words mean different things to different people, especially when used as public diplomacy labels to win support for changes in policy.
Could increasing air strikes seem to someone in the process in Washington a way to “show commitment” to fighting al-Shabaab even as our global posture shifts? Could they indicate concerns of more al-Queda related transnational terrorists coming in with the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria or otherwise? Or if AMISOM is going to be allowed to draw down is there a desire to substitute air strikes or expedite the pace of fighting to keep al-Shabaab from waiting out AMISOM before the Somalia National Army is capable? These are all just hypotheticals for me as an American not employed or contracted by my government to be personally involved beyond paying the taxes and preparing my children for the debt load.
Part of the challenge with Somalia is that we are not ready, at least yet, to acknowledge being “at war” even though there is not any serious factual debate about the fact that we are and have been. The fact that we are fighting is not officially secret, but neither are we open about it. We are not seeking public support in either the United States or in East Africa for what we are doing since we are willing to talk about it only in a way that is patently condescending rather than inviting engagement.
I am hoping that somewhere in my Government someone has come up with a new strategy for this war and that it went up the military and ultimately civilian chain-of-command before we started this escalated air campaign. The other possibility is pure self-perpetuating institutional “mission creep” which would be disturbing and irresponsible:
The escalation of airstrikes, as well as the introduction of manned gunships, has transformed the Defense Department’s Africa Command, based in Germany, into a war-fighting element akin to Central Command, which directs the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Africa Command, which was created only in 2007, has stressed that its role on the continent is to focus on training and equipping allied troops on the continent, but the rise in strikes points to a change in both posture and mission. Current and former American officialspreviously told The Timesthat there wasn’t one clear reason for the increase, but they noted that the drawdown of American military operations elsewhere in the world has given Africa Command more drones and gunships to use in Somalia. The loosening of regulations under the Trump administration on using force in the country has also contributed to the rise.
The Jubilee (UhuRuto) Coalition manifesto contains a section entitled “Good Governance” which strikingly in a country with so many governance challenges, contains only one section, on “the challenge” of “managing our relationship” with civil society:
The influence of Civil Society has expanded over the years to the point where the various Civil Society groups play an important role in the country’s political and economic development. In the years following the signing of the National Accord, the sector has grown in stature, influencing government decisions, political culture, and key appointments. We must identify new and innovative ways of working with the sector so that the country can fully benefit from its expertise and experience.
We believe that NGOs have a valuable role to play in monitoring government and helping to strengthen the social infrastructure in our country. We shall manage our relationship with the NGO sector in accordance with internationally recognized best practices.
The Coalition government will:
Introduce a Charities Act to regulate political campaigning by NGOs, to ensure that they only campaign on issues that promote their core remit and do not engage in party politics. This will also establish full transparency in funding both for NGOs and individual projects.
Establish a Charities Agency to provide an annual budgetary allocation to the NGO sector.
Promote accountability and coordination between the NGO sector and national and county governments.
Develop strong partnership with the NGO sector that enhances the country’s development agenda and promotes the interests of the people of Kenya.
So what does this mean? Clearly, what is proposed is substantial “regulation” and government involvement in the workings of civil society. This was understood by many in civil society before the election to refer to “Ethiopian” style control–you could also look at Rwanda and Uganda for other regimes in the EAC.
Since the election, we have seen some nasty, conspiratorialist, attacks on civil society for not getting in line with the IEBC’s announced result. See “Kenyans fundamental rights under attack” from Mugambi Kiai in the Nation, responding.
Africa Review reports on the statement of the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) from this week’s visit to Nairobi by executive secretary Mahboub Maalim (himself a Kenyan) and others from the Addis headquarters under the headline “IGAD confident of peaceful Kenya election”:
In his statement, Mr Maalim said: “Igad has come to the conclusion that Kenya’s election is not an event. It is a process and that March 4th is not the end; it is the beginning of a process that could last till June 2013. Kenyans must therefore brace themselves for the long haul.”
Mr Maalim said the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the judiciary are crucial for the success of the polls.
“The efficiency of the IEBC during the voter registration process must be lauded. We expect that the same efficiency will apply to the March 4 poll. This is critical if Kenya is to avoid petitions arising from IEBC system failure. The efficiency and believability of the Supreme Court in dealing with the presidential election petitions is also critical. This will determine whether or not the transition is successful,” the Igad executive secretary said.
He said IEBC should be encouraged to conduct a systems dry-run with peer reviewers to seal any loopholes that would affect its efficiency.
Dr Kimani said the recent party nominations in Kenya were inclusive, open and transparent and that it was what the rest of the region had expected.
Igad brings together six countries in the Horn of Africa – Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda – for development and drought control in their region
“Party nominations were inclusive, open and transparent”. Wow, that is certainly a unique perspective that contradicts the reporting in the Kenyan and international press, the reporting of Kenyan civil society umbrella KPTJ, and, for example, the reporting of the Center for Multi-Party Democracy-Kenya which is a well established and leading presence in Nairobi on these matters. So who is right here? Might it be relevant that IGAD is an organization of governments that are all far more “challenged” in terms of democratic practices in general, and elections specifically, than even Kenya in the wake of power-sharing and the debacle of 2007, along with the Government of Kenya itself?
I am all for whomever exhorting peace, although I am substantially skeptical that official pronouncements of this type have actual impact on ultimate behavior. Likewise, I am all for encouragement, hope and reasoned, well-grounded optimism in the context of pushing for the best election possible from where things really stand today. But this type of statement about the primaries is a “diplomatic” position rather than an observation or representation of fact. It undermines the credibility of whatever else is said in the same statement as being connected to the facts. At best it is unhelpful–it might be dangerous.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was once hailed as a major U.S. ally against terrorism but whose 21-year rule was tarnished by the killing and jailing of political protesters and a grisly border war with former ally Eritrea, died late Monday while being treated abroad for an undisclosed illness. He was 57.
The death was announced by Ethiopian state television, which said only that Mr. Meles died shortly before midnight after contracting an infection. The government did not specify where he died, and the circumstances of his death were laced with intrigue. . . .
With Ethiopian troops in Somalia just as the process of selecting new Somali leadership is underway, and heightened tension in Ethiopia itself, the region will be anxious as the stability and sustainability of new leadership post-Meles. Meles got along with other rulers and governments in the region, and with the U.S. and China and international institutions, while maintaining a repressive role at home.
From 1975 intelligence briefing for President Gerald Ford’s Nation Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft:
2. Nairobi has traditionally maintained one of the smaller armies in sub-Saharan Africa, (see table). The Kenyan leaders — especially President Kenyatta — have not wanted a large standing army. Tribal considerations have been a major factor in this decision. The army has long been the only significant institution in Kenya not under direct control of the Kikuyu, Kenyatta’s tribe. Kenyatta, however, has been gradually but effectively changing the balance to favor the Kikuyu through reorganizations and promotions. Apparently as a counterweight to the army, Kenyan leaders also have made sure that the elite paramilitary General Service Unit remains heavily armed, mobile, and dominated by the Kikuyu.
3. The Kenyans have in the past been able to take some comfort in a mutual defense pact with Ethiopia and a long-standing tacit agreement with the UK that provides for British assistance on request in the event of major internal trouble or an external attack on Kenya. Nairobi now realizes that the chances of Ethiopian assistance have been diminished by Addis Ababa’s internal instability, its problems with Somalia, and by troubles with insurgencies in Eritrea and other provinces. Nairobi also believes, rightly in our view, that it can no longer count on British assistance in the event of an emergency.
[Map of the Horn of Africa]
The Kenya-Uganda Balance
4. Relations between Kenya and Uganda, never smooth since Idi Amin came to power in 1971, have reached their nadir in the last few months. In February, Amin laid claim to part of western Kenya. Nairobi responded by stimulating a series of virulent anti-Amin demonstrations and a boycott at Kenya’s harbors of goods destined for Uganda.
5. The Kenyans later eased the boycott, but imposed a number of economic restrictions on Kampala. They cut in half Uganda’s fuel allotment from the Nairobi refinery and are requiring cash payment for petroleum products and other goods. The sanctions appear to be hurting the Ugandan economy. This may have provoked the mercurial Amin into launching some cross-border forays by helicopter -borne Ugandan troops this month — allegedly in search of rustled cattle. Amin has followed this up with verbal threats against Kenya that he has linked to criticism of Secretary Kissinger’s trip to Africa and charges of collusion between Washington and Nairobi.
6. Other factors have contributed to tensions between Kenya and Uganda. Nairobi newspapers have frequently published stories of alleged atrocities by Uganda perpetrated against Kenyans. Such stories have recently gained increased credibility among Kenyans by the well publicized disappearance in Kampala a few months ago of a Kenyan student, now widely presumed to have died at the hands of Ugandan security police.
7. Kenyan leaders have long been uneasy about Amin’s erratic behavior. Their concerns have been heightened by Amin’s accumulation of Soviet weapons, by the presence of Soviet advisers in Uganda, and by Amin’s ties to radical Arab states and Somalia. Kenya is concerned that Amin might make some supportive military move if Mogadiscio instigated a renewal of insurgency in northeast Kenya — it supported such an effort in the 1960s — or ordered the Somali army into action against Ethiopia or Kenya.
8. Amin is probably planning to keep alive the threat of additional cross-border raids to keep Nairobi off balance and to emphasize for domestic consumption the “threat” to Uganda. The Kenyans are nervous over reports that Amin has been stirring up his senior officers with threats to “crush Kenyatta.” Nairobi fears that the likelihood of some erratic move by Amin — a terrorist incident, an assassination attempt against Kenyatta, or the seizure of some Kenyan territory — will increase when Amin ends his term as chairman of the Organization of African Unity in July. Our judgment is that these concerns in Nairobi are exaggerated, but we cannot completely rule out such actions because of Amin’s personality.
9. The Kenyans are being careful not to push Amin too far publicly. President Kenyatta has returned the two Ugandan helicopters and several soldiers captured during the recent incursions, although he has privately issued a stern warning to Amin. Nairobi may ease the current economic restrictions once it feels it has made its point. Amin is already complaining loudly about a fuel shortage, and the Kenyans are probably wary about giving him grounds for justifying some military move by claiming he is being economically strangled.
10. Nonetheless, Nairobi has recently begun providing limited covert support for a group of Ugandan exiles in Kenya who have been plotting the overthrow of Amin. The group does not appear well organized, and the effort could backfire on Nairobi by providing justification for Amin to take counteraction against Kenya. For example, Amin might respond to any Kenyan-supported attempt to unseat him with a greater show of force on the border. In such a case, a major border incident could arise from a miscalculation by either side.
11. Kenyan concerns about Amin are compounded by his overwhelming superiority both in weapons and number of troops. Although Kenyan units are better trained and disciplined than Ugandan forces, Kenyan leaders are uneasy over an official assessment questioning the will of the army to defend the nation’s borders. Some army officers are concerned that the attention Nairobi is paying to Uganda will divert it from what they see as the far more serious Somali threat.
12. Recognizing its military inferiority, Kenya has approached the US and other potential sources for military assistance, especially aircraft. (Kenya continues, however, to turn down Soviet offers of military assistance.) Kenya has tried to interest the British in providing troops or aircraft for a joint exercise or some other show of force, preferably near the border, but London apparently has turned Nairobi down.
. . . .
The Horn of Africa
15. Kenya’s policy toward the Horn of Africa countries continues to be marked by an alliance with Ethiopia, its partner in a 13-year-old defense pact, and by a deep distrust of Somalia, which claims about one fifth of Kenya as well as a large part of Ethiopia and all of the neighboring FTAI. Kenya supports Paris’ announced intention to grant independence to the FTAI, and has called for OAU and UN guarantees for the independence and territorial integrity of the state.
16. The likelihood of military conflict between Ethiopia and Somalia over the FTAI has sharpened Kenya’s worries about its security and the intentions of the Mogadiscio government. Kenya fears it would be drawn into such a conflict because of its defense pact with Addis Ababa.
17. Nairobi also believes that a successful Somali takeover of the FTAI would encourage Mogadiscio to reassert its claims to the northeastern part of Kenya inhabited primarily by ethnic Somalis and to press a new insurgency effort there. The Kenyans already suspect that Amin’s recent claims to parts of Kenya were made in collusion with Somali President SIAD in an effort to keep the Nairobi government off balance. We have no hard evidence to support the Kenyan suspicions, but relations between Amin and SIAD are relatively close.
Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Presidential Country Files for Africa, Box 3, Kenya. Secret; Noforn; Nocontract; Orcon. Prepared jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency, The Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Sent to Scowcroft on May 7 by B.E. Layton, Acting National Intelligence Officer for South and Southeast Asia and Africa, Central Intelligence Agency.
Now that Kenya has initiated a full-fledged ground war in Southern Somalia, the obvious and necessary question becomes “what are the near term unintended consequences?”. It is hard to be too clear about what is “unintended” because Kenya’s intentions, on either the military or the political side, are not altogether clear in the first place, but here is one possibility that few would desire:
. . . This begs the question: what does Eritrea have to gain by funding a Somali Islamic fundamentalist militia?
The answer lies neither in Somalia nor Eritrea, but in the country that looms large between them: Ethiopia. Ethiopia is Eritrea’s nemesis, having occupied Eritrea for decades until Eritrea achieved its modern independence with a hard-fought and vicious civil war. But Eritrea can’t relax, ever, because it has the one thing that land-locked Ethiopia wants more than anything else in this world: a port. And rapprochement is not the style of Eritrea’s slightly mad President Isaias Afwerki, whose militaristic foreign policy has left Eritrea in the international wilderness.
Instead, Afwerki has fomented instability in Somalia, hoping the chaos next door will keep Ethiopia and its military occupied. Ethiopia is deeply involved in the Somali conflict itself, and its troops make frequent cross-border raids to chase rebels who are agitating against the Ethiopian government in the ethnically Somali province of the Ogaden. As International Crisis Group’s Somalia expert Rashid Abdi explains: “Eritrea definitely has been supportive of Al Shabaab for a long time and this support is not ideological. It’s essentially meant to counter Ethiopia’s influence in Somalia.”
So while we don’t know if it really was Eritrea sending planeloads of weapons to Al Shabaab during the current conflict with Kenya, this nonetheless represents the first step in turning what is a domestic conflict into a larger, regional issue. In a way, it doesn’t really matter if Eritrea was involved or not, as long as Kenya thinks they were, they will be implicated.
Kenya has said it will pursue its claims against Eritrea, saying that it has a “series of options” to deal with them. It’s unclear what these options are, but it’s unlikely that any of them will ease tensions in the Horn of Africa. And whenever Eritrea gets involved in something, it’s not long before Ethiopia follows suit – on the opposite side, of course. So what started out as a Somali issue might just turn into something much, much bigger, not forgetting that Uganda and Burundi are already involved as they are the only countries to have contributed troops to the African Union mission in Somalia.
Kenya hoped its Somali incursion would be quick and easy. But its troops are getting bogged down in the mud and are struggling to even find the enemy. And on the diplomatic front, as the incursion starts looking more and more like an invasion, other countries are inevitably getting involved, making it even less likely that Kenya can extricate itself from Somalia quickly or easily.
The complex US-led intervention in Somalia, a decade in the making, represents offshore balancing at its most potent and urgent. The Libyan rebellion was outside the United States’ core interests. For Washington, intervening in Libya was optional. But Somalia, a failed state since 1991 and an al-Qaeda safe haven, represents a direct threat to the United States, and indeed has inspired the first American suicide bombers.
If offshore balancing, with its emphasis on air and sea power and proxy armies, is to define the US strategic approach to Asia and the Pacific, it first must succeed in Somalia.
For advocates of the strategy, there are reasons for hope. US offshore balancing in Somalia came together gradually, almost by accident, as separate interventions chased the converging problems of famine, terrorism and piracy. Today, this increasingly unified US effort seems to finally be bearing fruit, as American-supported foreign armies rapidly gain ground against al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist fighters.
However, sceptics too might find ammunition in the United States’ Somalia strategy. For while current US efforts in Somalia have managed to avoid a major ground-force deployment – and indeed have been essentially bloodless for Washington – they have at the same time failed to bring a speedy end to the country’s crises. The recent territory gains are encouraging but hardly decisive – and certainly reversible.
. . . .
The ICU didn’t explicitly advocate terrorism, and there were probably only a handful of al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in Somalia at the time. But that nuance was lost on the George W. Bush Administration. Washington pledged support for the Ethiopian attack, including ‘intelligence sharing, arms aid and training,’ according to USA Today.
With this backing, plus air cover provided by US AC-130 gunships and carrier-based fighters and assistance on the ground by US Special Forces, the Ethiopian army launched a Blitzkrieg-style assault on Somalia in December 2006.
Ethiopian tanks quickly routed the ICU’s lightly armed fighters. ‘The Somalia job was fantastic,’ Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan told then-US Central Commander boss Gen. John Abizaid in 2007.
The Bush Administration agreed with that assessment, at least initially. And the proxy approach to African security challenges quickly became central to Washington’s policy for the continent. In 2007, the Pentagon formed a new regional command called ‘Africa Command’ to oversee operations in most of Africa.
. . . .
In Somalia, the Ethiopian invasion and subsequent two-year occupation only served to rally the country’s Islamic extremists. Al Shabab coalesced from the remains of the ICU’s armed wing and launched a bloody, and surprisingly popular, insurgency against the Ethiopians.
Also targeted: the UN- and US-sponsored Transition Federal Government, formed under the protection of the Ethiopians, plus the new African Union peacekeeping force composed mostly of Ugandan and Burundian troops and funded by the United Nations and Washington.
Al Shabab also strengthened ties with al-Qaeda, which had sent operatives to advise clan forces during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and, more than a decade later, still maintained a small presence in Somalia. The al-Qaeda-Al Shabab alliance helped Al Shabab pull off a twin suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2010 that killed 74 people.
. . . .
US support for the peacekeepers and the TFG represents the proxy portion of Washington’s offshore balancing in Somalia. Naval patrols, Special Forces raids and strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles round out the strategy. At first, however, the main air and sea initiatives weren’t directly tied to the proxy fight on the ground.
In parallel with its support for Ethiopia’s attack on Somalia, the Pentagon in 2006 was in the process of standing up an East African counter-terrorism complex anchored by secret bases reportedly in Ethiopia and Kenya. From there, US Special Forces and armed drones struck at terrorist targets in Somalia, occasionally in cooperation with naval forces.
In 2007, Special Operations Command aircraft launched at least two helicopter raids on al-Qaeda and Al Shabab operatives in Somalia. On no fewer than three occasions in 2007 and 2008, commandos spotted targets for US warships firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Somali targets. Some of the same warships help make up Combined Task Force 150, a US-led international naval force assigned to intercept arms shipments bound for Al Shabab and al-Qaeda in Somalia.
For many Africans khat is a stimulant drug that also stills hunger pangs. But the world’s biggest seller of khat doesn’t fit the typical profile of a drug dealer.
In Somaliland, not a lot works. Somaliland is a republic in the north of Somalia, which, although it declared itself a sovereign state, is not internationally recognized as such. But one thing you can count on here: Suhura Ismail’s trucks, driven at breakneck speed, arriving as regular as clockwork every night on the unpaved roads. The trucks are delivering khat, a drug that is mostly forbidden in Europe.
In Somaliland, on the other hand, the business is legal – and booming. Up to 80% of all men in the tiny country in the Horn of Africa are addicted to khat. Suhura Ismail says she herself has never tried chewing the bitter leaves. But it has made her rich, and in her homeland, Ethiopia, she is a highly respected entrepreneur.
“I was just voted Businesswoman of the Year,” she says. “And then I got a bill for back taxes amounting to 48 million Birr (1.9 million euros.) But we’ll figure something out. I have good connections with the Prime Minister.”
The 49-year-old mother of ten is the biggest khat dealer in the world. And although she does have a flashy gold tooth, there is none of the usual baggage about her that usually attends international dealers: no body guards, no fake names, no fear of other drug cartels or the police — though the tax man is a bit of a bother.
Then again, this Ethiopian woman would not describe herself as a drug dealer. The devout Muslim sees herself simply as an entrepreneur. Her family business sells between 30,000 and 40,000 kilos of khat each day.
In the 1990s, when coffee prices fell, many farmers in Ethiopia switched to growing khat. Since then, the drug has become one of the country’s major export goods – and the government of the world’s 12th poorest country wants its share. Ismail brings in foreign currency, or at least she does when she pays what she owes the state, which is 30% of her profits.
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The girl who used to hawk khat from a roadside stand is now an entrepreneur with more than 1,000 employees, as well as her own airline, Suhura Airways. “In the world khat trade, Suhura is uncontestably numero uno,” says Ephrem Tesema, who wrote a thesis at Basel University on the production, distribution and use of khat. “And in Ethiopia she is thought to control over 50% of the market.”
Ultimately, Ismail’s great breakthrough was in removing the stigma associated with the drug. “She did a lot of PR, so in Ethiopia now the leaves are just another commercial product,” says Tesema.
Suhura Ismail says she would like to expand into Europe, and is hoping that the continent’s biggest market, Germany, will legalize the drug. It’s a country she’s familiar with. When her husband started having trouble with his teeth she flew with him to Frankfurt for dental work. Now, back home, his teeth are again in good shape, and he can return to chewing his daily consumption of the green leaves.