By Alemayehu G. Mariam (6 October 2008) The situation in Somalia has turned Code Red. Things are deteriorating very fast for Zenawi’s troops. The Al-Shabaab “jihadists” have taken over southern Somalia, and are ravenously eyeing Mogadishu. It is no longer “hit-and-run” guerrilla warfare. It is capture-and-stay. They have captured Kisimayo, a southern port town. They are staying. They are being “flooded with money” from supporters and backers throughout the Middle East. They have shut down the Mogadishu airport. Now they are vowing to do the same with the sea ports. The 2500 or so African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi are holed up in their garrisons in Mogadishu as the insurgents rain rocket-propelled grenades on them at will. Bombings, assassinations, piracy, kidnappings and hostage-taking are a daily fact of life in Somalia.
There are no viable political solutions. The cost of the war both in terms of human lives and resources has become unbearable for Ethiopia, and Somalia. Zenawi’s forces are in full “strategic retreat” to Mogadishu. After nearly two years of intervention and occupation of Somalia, there are no signs of success; and an anniversary of total failure in the quicksand of Somalia awaits Zenawi this coming December. Could this be the end of Pax Zenawi in Somalia?
Zenawi realizes the jig is up in Somalia. For the past several weeks, he and his officials have been consistently dropping hints and insinuations of withdrawal. In his Ethiopian “new year” video interview last month, Zenawi declared triumphantly that he had fully achieved his primary objective of destroying and neutralizing the “jihadist” threat to Ethiopia. Success in stabilizing the Somali transitional government and bringing some measure of peace and reconciliation was “not 100 percent”. But Somalia is ready to host international peacekeepers, and he is ready to take out his troops. For Zenawi, the question is not whether or not to withdraw from Somalia, but “whether keeping Ethiopian forces in Somalia in the longer term would make a difference”? In other words, Zenawi wants out ASAP, but he needs to save face. He wants the U.N., the African Union or some other peacekeeping body to take over so that he can say he stabilized and brought peace to Somalia and is now withdrawing victoriously and honorably. That is unlikely to happen because there is no one out there willing to help him cover up the folly of his quixotic, imperial and hubristic misadventures in Somalia. Zenawi has no place to run but face the music.
Back in mid-December 2006, Zenawi denied any direct military involvement in Somalia. In an interview with the Washington Post, Zenawi explained that he had sent a few hundred soldiers into Somalia to provide training. “It is true we have troops in Baidoa, the capital, who are there to train forces of the transitional federal government, who are an internationally recognized government and who have officially asked for support from Ethiopia. . . . Now, if the transitional government does not want our trainers, we’d be happy to withdraw them. . .” He warned that “There is a group in the Islamic Movement in Mogadishu that is not interested in democratic secular government in Somalia, that is hell-bent on establishing a Taliban regime in Somalia. Now, you can facilitate the Talibanization of Somalia through dialogue. If that is the intention, it perhaps makes sense….” In early January, 2007, a triumphant Zenawi declared that his forces would remain in Somalia “for a few weeks” while the transitional government stabilizes the situation. “It is up to the international community to deploy a peacekeeping force in Somalia without delay to avoid a vacuum and a resurgence of extremists and terrorists.”
In May, 2007, Zenawi told Al Jazeera that he was not only providing training in Somalia, he had been invited by the transitional government to assist in fighting terrorists. “I think we should get the facts straight first. We did not invade Somalia. We were invited by the duly constituted government of Somalia, internationally recognized government of Somalia to assist them in averting the threat of terrorism. We did so.” Even though he had argued at the outset of the invasion that Somalia was the central front in the battle against Al Queida and international terrorism in the Horn of Africa, he denied any U.S. role in the invasion: “We did not fight a proxy war on behalf of the United States. Indeed, the United States was very ambivalent about our intervention, once we intervened of course the United States and much of the international community was supportive but in the initial phase before we intervened, everybody, including the United States was warning us that we might walk into a trap and a quagmire and that we should think twice before taking steps.” In October, 2007, he told his parliament: “So, rushing to pull out the army immediately would have entailed a situation for the already dismantled forces of terror in Somalia to regroup, and thereby to render void the sacrifices already made by the Ethiopian army.”
Today, things are going downhill in Somalia, and getting worse by the day. The Somali jihadist-talibanist-terrorists refuse to be vanquished. They have launched an Iraq-style insurgency. The civilian war casualty continues to increase by the day. An estimated 20,000 Somalis have died, mostly civilians, since the invasion. Over 1 million Somalis have been displaced. Upwards of 5 thousand of Zenawi’s troops are estimated to have been killed or severely injured in the Somali war. Amnesty International has documented massive human rights violations by Zenawi’s troops in Somalia including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, beatings, arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances and collective punishments. Zenawi says it is all a “total fabrication”. There is no accountability for what Zenawi does in Somalia. As one opposition leader recently complained, “The government has irresponsibly refused to account on these two pertinent issues relating to the Ethiopian army’s deployment to Somalia. Every country’s parliament, even the public at large, has a right to know what its involvement is costing in terms of life and resources. We have been kept in the dark.”
Under Zenawi’s watch, the “jhihadists” and “terrorists” in Somalia have not only grown stronger militarily, they have also expanded into new fields of terroristic operations. The Somali coast has become Piracy Central. Carrying cell phones, RPGs, speedboats and assorted small arms, the high tech Somali pirates are making it hazardous for commercial navigation on the Indian Ocean. Last week Zenawi complained: “We are very concerned about the level of piracy on the seas. It is related to the instability in Somalia. They could be used to destabilize the region and the whole situation on the high seas is a matter of great concern for all of us. We very much hope the international community will respond.” His foreign minister last week called upon the U.N. to deploy peacekeepers in Somalia “as soon as possible” or provide resources to strengthen the current African Union mission.
The Somali war has never been popular in Ethiopia. Unlike the war in Iraq, there was no one in Ethiopia who was for the Somali war before they were against it. Everybody was against it. Now there is even talk that “Ethiopia’s fractious political opposition is planning a unified parliamentary campaign to demand a complete withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from Somalia.” VOA reported recently that “opposition parties” have sent a letter to Zenawi “saying the sacrifice of lives and scarce financial resources had become unbearable.” Bulcha Demeksa stated matter-of-factly that the Somalis “resolved to fight against us, and they are fighting, and in my opinion they are winning.” But Zenawi’s official policy remains: “We can get out any time. We will not. We are not in a quagmire. We can get out anytime. But we cannot abandon the transitional government and Somali people. We have to see progress in reconciliation so we do not want to abandon them in middle of crisis in Somalia.”
Zenawi’s invasion of Somalia was reckless and irresponsible. He glibly assured the world at the beginning of the invasion, “we will be out in a few weeks.” Now he realizes that the business of war is unpredictable, expensive and uncertain. After nearly two years, he has found that the Somali war has sapped the strength of his troops and depleted the limited resources of the country; and he has no diplomatic leverage over the various warring Somali elements to impose his quixotic vision of a Pax Zenawi on the Somali people which he can manipulate through a puppet client regime.
It is really hard to imagine what Zenawi had in mind where he decided to invade Somalia. From his public statements, one can infer that he must have had visions of a mini-empire in the Horn. He certainly had megalomaniacal visions of bringing peace, freedom and stability to Somalia (something he has been unable to bring to his own country over the past 17 years). He seems to have envisioned himself as a “Supercop” with the self-appointed responsibility of keeping law and order in the Horn. In December, 2006, he asserted a unilateral right to act as a Horn policeman and contain terrorism, and casually invited the world to join him after he kicked the rear ends of the “jihadists” in “a few weeks”. The potential implications of a Pax Zenawi in Somalia are as dangerous as they are laughable. Today Zenawi finds himself in Somalia like the frontier marshal portrayed by Gary Cooper in “High Noon” facing some nasty and wicked outlaws without help from the townsfolk. He stands alone against a vicious phantom “jihadist” enemy all by himself; and none of the Somali townsfolk, the Ethiopian people or the international community wants to help him fight them.
The fact of the matter is that Somalis are not interested in any peace imposed upon them by Zenawi. The gift of secular government Zenawi wants to offer the Somalis has few takers. For the last 17 years, the Somalis have been unable to come to terms with the basic facts of their national life. Maybe they prefer tribal and clan associations over an elected democratic national government. Maybe they’d rather have a theocratic state than a secular transitional government whose authority is more widely denied and held in contempt than recognized. They regard the members of the transitional government as collaborators. It’s up to them what they want. It is not up to Zenawi to impose upon them. Yet in his recent statements, Zenawi is implicitly threatening the international community that if they don’t send troops and/or provide resources, he may just quit and walk out. That would presumably embolden the Al-Shabaab and the local and foreign Islamist extremists; and Somalia would be swiftly consumed in a civil war and become an incubator for terrorists. That was the same plea he made back in December 2006. It is falling on deaf ears now. For nearly two years, he has been begging for more African Union for troops, and with the exception of Uganda and Burundi, none of the estimated 6,000 AU troops are unlikely to show up. The lame duck Bush Administration is bogged down with its own problems. Nobody seems to care much about the anticipated consequences Zenawi’s withdrawal from Somalia.
Zenawi’s dilemma in getting out of Somalia revolves around several issues: First, he believes that if he withdraws “precipitously” there will be civil war in Somalia. That is not convincing as Somalis have been in a state of clan wars, virtual civil wars, since the fall of the Barre regime in 1991. Second, an immediate or even a phased withdrawal will encourage and embolden the “jihadists” terrorist. The fact is that the “jihadists” are already emboldened by the fact that they now virtually control most of southern Somalia. The only thing the continued occupation will do is increase their determination to rid the occupation forces. Third, the security and military capability of the transitional giovernment must be strengthened or it will be overrun by Islamist forces. The problem with that argument is that it will take years to enhance the military capability and combat readiness of the transitional government forces. There are issues of clan loyalty, shifting clan alliances and resources that make such a thing nearly impossible. Fourth, an unscheduled withdrawal will undermine “Ethiopia’s credibility” and expose “our supporters in Somalia” to extreme danger, and damage the morale of Zenawi’s troops. Those supporters are in extreme danger now as attempts are being made almost daily to assassinate and attack them. The war has no popular support and morale has been low from the beginning. If Zenawi’s troops were given a choice between staying in Somalia and fighting a losing war or risking damage to their morale, they would take the latter, as would the Ethiopian people.
The painful fact is that invasion of Somalia was not in the national interest of Ethiopia. The invasion was illegal under international law, a colossal political mistake and morally wrong to invade a country and cause so much civilian death and displacement. At the time of the invasion, Somalia was in no position to militarily threaten Ethiopia. Today, the counterinsurgency is getting tougher by the day and is recruiting more fighters. It seems increasingly clear that it is well-funded and well-equipped to inflict maximum damage and sustain the insurgency for a very long time. The only real option is getting out of Somalia immediately and without preconditions.
There are no good options left for Zenawi. His dream of creating a stable, pluralist, democratic, unitary state with strong constitutional protections in Somalia is as real as the mirages in the Somali desert. He has not been able to create a pluralist democratic society in Ethiopia in 17 years; it is unlikely he could do so in Somalia in 2 years. He also seems to have overplayed his hand in Somalia in trying to use the same old divide-and-rule strategy that has worked for him so well in Ethiopia. He found out that Somali history and the history of Ethiopian-Somali relationship can not be undone by a wave of the magic wand of divide and rule.
At this late stage in the game, Zenawi’s choices are limited. First, he can withdraw immediately, a strategy less affectionately known as “cut and run.” That would be the most rational thing to do. In other words, cut your losses in a lost war and run for the border. Zenawi says that would plunge Somalia into civil war and expose the transitional government to certain doom. But what he needs to realize is that much of the violence, insecurity and instability in Somalia today is a direct reaction to his occupation forces and his support for the transitional regime. Somalia has also been in a state of anarchy since 1991. Immediate withdrawal will more likely result in a decline in violence than a spike in it. The way things are shaping now, Zenawi will be forced to cut and run from Somalia. Analysis of his recent public statements seem to suggest that he is slowly building courage just to do just that. A phased withdrawal may also be an option. Perhaps a reassurance that occupying forces will leave Somalia might bring the warring factions together and hammer out a working arrangement.
His second option is to continue the occupation, that is an open-ended anti-jihadist counter-terrorism mission that will prove to be increasingly bloody, costly, and counterproductive. But even that is becoming more difficult as the “jhihadists” retake and control more territory and tighten the noose on Mogadishu. There are few occupied areas in Somalia where Zenawi’s forces or the transitional government can enforce their political rule, exercise civil authority and/or maintain law and order. If there exists any “government” in Somalia at all, it seems to exist in the form of non-political traditional social institutions such as clan elders, tribal militias, religious clerics, etc. Generally, the anecdotal data from composite news and published intelligence sources shows that Zenawi’s troops can no longer operate as an effective occupation force. They have been forced to abandon towns and strategic locations and go into virtual “force protection mode”. They remain in their fortified bases and are making little effort to go out and aggressively pursue the “jihadist terrorists”. They have been effectively neutralized by the “jihadists”.
Third, Zenawi can work to intensify regional/international diplomatic offensives. The problem is that no one seems to be interested. The AU has been unable to deliver on the promised peacekeepers and the U.N. has not been able to provide much more than moral support. So far he has been able to engage in a diplomatic parlor game accusing opponents, “jihadists” and others of distorting his intentions and aims. He has not been able to get real commitment for a power sharing arrangement among the various factions. For whatever reasons, the Somalis do not appear interested in diplomatic solutions engineered by Zenawi.
Fourth, dump the transitional government and work with the “jihadists”. The fact of the matter is that the transitional government exists in name only. It can not provide the most basic functions and services. It has few units with any capability for sustained combat operations. It is unlikely that the government’s troops can be trained and equipped in such large numbers to become an effective fighting force in their own right in the foreseeable future. There is not much evidence to suggest that the forces of the transitional government are contributing significantly to the fight against the insurgents. It is also unlikely that Somali clan and militia leaders will make difficult compromises so long as there are foreign troops on their soil. Religious and nationalist opposition is on the rise and there is no support for the occupation forces and very little for the transitional government. After nearly two years of fighting in Somalia, it is clear that the insurgents are at least as strong now as they ever have been, and most likely much stronger as they now control large swaths of the country. Maybe it’s time to talk to them and cut a deal; perhaps cobble together a basis for a very loose “national” government and carve out territories for the various clans leaders to administer on their own. Then leave Somalia!
Fifth, Zenawi can maintain a prolonged strategic stalemate with the “jihadists”. Obviously, this is a very risky strategy. The presence of foreign troops in Somalia will always provoke resistance; and at best Zenawi can expect a bloody stalemate that will result in more civilian deaths, military casualties and incur huge costs. But it may be possible to continue to mount selective operations to keep pressure on the insurgents.
The questions Zenawi needs to face are clear: Is Ethiopia or the international community safer from the threats of terrorism today than in December 2006? If he disengages, will Somalia be plunged into its former state of clan warfare (civil war) and politics? In as much as Zenawi has tried to fan the flames of terrorism in the Horn to get international support for his interventionary actions, support for his dictatorship in Ethiopia and avert sanctions for his massive human rights violations, his strategy for war and peace in Somalia has failed completely. As the old saying goes, “You can start a war whenever you want, but you can not stop it whenever you want.” That is Zenawi’s problem: How can he stop the war and get out of Somalia? The ultimate question is how to help Zenawi withdraw from Somalia without losing face, not how many Ethiopians or Somalis are dying or displaced. It is unlikely that he will admit defeat and error and pull the troops out. That is just not going to happen. The invasion of Somalia was a colossal misadventure. There will be no peace with honor to exit out of Somalia. Zenawi will leave Somalia in disgrace in six months, one year or however long it takes. That is the price of arrogance and hubris. As Scriptures teach: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace.” And “pride goes before destruction, and haughtiness before a fall.” (Proverbs 11:2, 16:18.)
The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at email@example.com