Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What's happening in Somalia?

I don't pretend to have any deep understanding of what's going on in Somalia, but there's no question that the events of the past week and a half have been remarkable and unexpected.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, and over the course of 2006 the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government (or pseudo-government) had been steadily losing ground to a coalition of Islamists, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). It is hard to resist noticing some distant analogies to Afghanistan in the 1990s, though one shouldn't get carried away by them. As was the case for the Taliban in their initial phases, one source of support for the Somali Islamists was their promise to establish some minimal degree of order and security in contrast to the existing situation of chaos, warlordism, and pervasive violence. By December 2006, the TFG had lost most of the country, including the capital city of Mogadishu, and only the support of troops from Ethiopia prevented the Islamists from overrunning the government's last stronghold in Baidoa. (Similarly, by 2001 the Taliban had taken over most of Afghanistan, and the internationally recognized coalition government was precariously holding on to just a few pockets in the north.) In mid-December 2006 the Islamists seemed poised to capture Baidoa in a final offensive.

Meanwhile, the conflicts within Somalia had been drawn into the vortex of larger regional conflicts, including a proxy war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ethiopia's support for the TFG has been mirrored by Eritrea's support for the Somali Islamists of the UIC (slightly reminiscent of Pakistan's support for the Taliban, though that was much more massive, and Eritrea's involvement with the Somali Islamists seems to have played a much less decisive role in their successes than Pakistan's support for the Taliban). According to an Associated Press story in October 2007:
Thousands of foreign troops in Somalia could lead to "an all out war" between Somalia’s transitional government and an Islamic group that controls much of the country, according to a confidential U.N. report obtained by The Associated Press.

The confidential report, dated Oct. 26 and obtained by The Associated Press, cites diplomatic sources in estimating that "between 6,000-8,000 Ethiopians and 2,000 fully equipped Eritrean troops are now inside Somalia supporting" the internationally recognized government or the Islamic movement.

"Both sides in the Somali conflict are reported to have major outside backers," the report said, saying Ethiopia, Uganda and Yemen supported the government and Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Gulf states supported the Islamic movement. [....]

Ethiopian officials have insisted they have only a few hundred military advisers assisting the government, but international and local officials have put the number into the thousands. [....]

The Somali transitional government has repeatedly accused Eritrea of arming and supporting their rivals in the Islamic movement, something that both Eritrean and Islamic officials have repeatedly denied. [....]
=> Then, starting on December 24, the Ethiopians and the TFG launched a counter-offensive against the Islamists, and within a very short time the Islamist forces simply disintegrated and ran away. (This is again reminiscent of what happened to the Taliban in 2001, though in their case it took longer than a week and a half. At the time, almost no one expected the Taliban to collapse so suddenly--though there were a few exceptions.)

It's clear that everyone was surprised by this result, and it can't be explained simply by the fact that the Islamists were now facing troops from a real army. As the 1994 events in Mogadishu made clear, when Somali fighters are really serious, they are willing to stand and fight and take massive casualties against militarily superior forces. The rapid and comprehensive rout of the Islamists in this round of fighting suggests that their support was actually fairly shallow and uneven.

=> Of course, the same can be said for the Transitional Government, so it's unclear what will happen next.

Jonathan Edelstein, who blogs as Head Heeb, is a consistently reliable source of informed and perceptive analysis (even when I don't fully agree with his analyses), and Edelstein has been closely following the Somali situation for a while. In a characteristically interesting and thought-provoking discussion on January 2 (Somalia: The Third Phase), Edelstein concedes that he has tended to be "on the alarmist side in much of my writing about Somalia" (his December 27 piece on the subject was headed "The apocalypse begins"), and at the moment it might appear that his alarmism might have been excessive. But it's actually much too soon to tell.

As Edelstein notes, "Somalia is an easy country to overrun but a hard one to occupy," and now there is certainly a danger that "the Ethiopian intervention will turn into a counterinsurgency very quickly." Therefore, having considered some potentially optimistic scenarios for the near future ...
It now remains to be seen what form the third phase of the conflict will take. I've been on the alarmist side in much of my writing about Somalia, so in the interest of balance, I'll lay out a possible scenario that might lead to improvement. This scenario involves the Ethiopian troops withdrawing quickly, a Ugandan-led peacekeeping force rotating in, the African Union implementing a general disarmament program, and the Transitional Federal Government using the breathing space to establish authority over southern and central Somalia. The TFG could then implement the transitional charter by facilitating the formation of regional states through organic consultation processes similar to the ones that created Somaliland and Puntland, resolve the Somaliland question via negotiation and hold elections to complete the changing of the guard from warlords to technocrats.
... Edelstein explains some of his reasons for remaining pessimistic.
To begin with, the TFG has a great deal of institutional resistance to disarmament and peaceful modernization. It's fundamentally a barons' parliament made up of clan chiefs and not-so-former warlords, and like most feudal parliaments, its members' primary concern is with maintaining their own independence from the center. Warlords like Abdi Qeybdiid, whose militias were euphemistically described as "government troops" during the recent fighting, are almost certain to cheat on any disarmament plan and to resist the creation of national administrative institutions, and there are too few independent members of the TFG to impose such programs against the warlords' resistance.

For another thing, the people of Somalia aren't likely to give the TFG very much breathing space. However happy some may be right now to be free of the Islamic courts' repressive policies, their tolerance will fade quickly once the warlords resume their arbitrary extortion. In addition, transitional president Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed's personal ties to Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi have engendered a perception that the TFG is an Ethiopian puppet, and even if reports like this one are untrue, the very fact that they're circulating will fuel that perception. [....]

So on balance, I'd still rate the most likely outcome as a sham Ethiopian withdrawal followed by an extended counterinsurgent conflict, with the TFG remaining ineffectual and internally divided while the Islamist militias wage a guerrilla struggle with substantial public support. This, in turn, will ensure that Eritrea continues to support local proxies against the Ethiopians, and that fighters from the greater Middle East will continue to be attracted by the widely reported (albeit erroneous) portrayal of the conflict as one pitting Somali Muslims against Ethiopian Christians.
Maybe, maybe not. We'll have to see.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Some further complications might also be worth mentioning: As far as I can tell, the recent news reports about Somalia have mostly ignored the fact that since 1991 the northern third of the country has been running itself autonomously and fairly successfully as the Republic of Somaliland and Puntland while the rest of Somalia has remained in the grip of chaos and civil war.

The people running Puntland have so far staked a claim only for autonomy within some hypothetical future Somali federation. Somaliland claimed independence in May 1991. (Somaliland is a former British protectorate, while the rest of Somalia was once ruled by Italy.) However, it is very unlikely that it will succeed in getting any outside recognition as an independent country, since there is a strong international consensus against the idea of breaking up African states.

Any analyses (or speculations) about possible futures for Somalia need to take Somaliland and Puntland into account--especially Somaliland. On the one hand, some of the political practices by which they have been able to maintain relatively orderly and peaceful societies might offer useful models for the rest of Somalia. And on the other hand, any future political solution for Somalia will probably have to include some negotiated accommodations with Somaliland and Puntland that grant them a significant degree of autonomy.