By Alemayehu G. Mariam* | 6 December 2010 |
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive,” said Sir Walter Scott, the English novelist and poet. It looks like the U.S. of A is really in a pickle tangled in a web of lies, deceit and diplomatic chicanery about its role and involvement in the 2006 invasion of Somalia by the dictator in Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi. The truth about the “fantastic Somalia job” (invasion), as the crown prince of Abu Dhabi called it, is now coming to light in the diplomatic cables acquired by Wikileaks, the organization dedicated to publishing sensitive documents from anonymous sources and whistleblowers. David Axe (Wired.com) citing Wikileaks cables last week argued that the U.S. had actually hired Zenawi to “do its dirty work” in Somalia. Axe wrote1:
It was an off-hand compliment during a January 2007 dinner the month following Zenawi’s full scale invasion of Somalia meeting between Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, plus staff, and then-U.S. Central Commander boss General John Abizaid…. ‘The Somalia job was fantastic,’ Al Nahyan interjected… At the time of Al Nahyan’s comment, the dust was just settling from Ethiopia’s Blitzkrieg-style assault toward Mogadishu. Some 50,000 Ethiopian troops… had cut a bloody swath through the lightly-armed forces of the Islamic Courts Union…. Washington certainly had a motive to get involved in Somalia… Already with two escalating wars on its own plate, the U.S. was in no position to openly lead its own large-scale attack on Somalia. It’d have been far simpler to simply sponsor somebody else to do the dirty work. Enter Ethiopia…. All the same, evidence was mounting that the U.S. had played a leading role in the Ethiopian invasion. Journalists only strongly suspected it, but Abu Dhabi prince Al Nayhan apparently knew it for certain, if his praise of “the Somalia job” was any indication…. Today, U.S. Special Forces continue to target terrorists in Somalia. There are arguably more of them than ever, thanks in part to the botched Ethiopian invasion. ‘We’ve made a lot of mistakes and Ethiopia’s entry in 2006 was not a really good idea,’ U.S. diplomat Donald Yamamoto said in March.
Blowback and Plausible Deniability
There appear to be two parallel cover stories invented from the beginning to explain U.S. involvement (and alternatively, non-involvement) in Zenawi’s invasion of Somalia. The first story is that Zenawi presented the U.S. a fait accompli (done deal) to invade Somalia. The U.S. advised against such an invasion but reluctantly supported it after it became clear that Zenawi’s decision was irreversible. The second is what may be called “throw-Zenawi-under-the-bus” story. If there is a blowback on the U.S. from Zenawi’s invasion because of high civilian casualties, other humanitarian disasters or prolonged stalemate, the U.S. could simply dump the entire blame on Zenawi and claim plausible deniability. In other words, “Zenawi did it on his own. The U.S. had nothing to do with it. The U.S. advised him not to invade. Blame Zenawi.” The straight story is that the U.S. not only supported the invasion but was actually snagged into supporting the invasion by the clever, calculating and cunning Zenawi.
The available evidence suggests that Zenawi had been spinning his own web of deceit and lies to entangle the U.S. in a Horn war in 2006 for two purposes: 1) to ingratiate himself with the U.S. and panhandle for more aid handouts, and 2) effectively deflect criticism of his miserable human rights record in the aftermath of the stolen May 2005 elections. In the run up to the Somali invasion, Zenawi was facing withering criticism and condemnation for his massive repression, massacres of hundreds of unarmed protesters and jailing of nearly all the opposition leaders, independent newspaper publishers, civic society leaders and human rights advocates in the country. By the Spring of 2006, an unprecedented bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress to cut off aid to Zenawi unless he improved his human rights record. Zenawi clearly understood that significant American support was essential for the very survival of his repressive regime. Zenawi was also keenly aware of American obsession, fixation and preoccupation with Al Qaeda in the Horn. Zenawi calculated that if he could seduce and snag the U.S. in an invasion of Somalia by presenting himself as an “Al Qaeda Hunter in the Horn”, he could have the best of all possible worlds. He could make best friends for life with the U.S. and forever forestall any actions that could result in a cutoff of U.S. aid to his regime or other unpleasant diplomatic pressure.
The evidence suggests that to accomplish this objective Zenawi concocted “false intelligence” to entice the U.S. into supporting his invasion of Somalia by essentially sounding the siren call that will always catch America’s attention: “The Jihadists are coming!!!” On June 6, 2006, six months before the full-scale invasion that led to the siege of Mogadishu and one month before a small contingent of Zenawi’s troops were sent to defend the Somali “Transitional Federal Government” (TGF) in Baidoa, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, who incidentally facilitated Zenawi’s takeover of power in Ethiopia in May 1991, shared an illuminating and well-informed insight:
Also, there are friends in the region, like the Ethiopians, who probably are feeding false intelligence about terrorists being hidden and that sort of thing, because the Ethiopians are deadly afraid of Moslem control and also they have their own Moslem problem among the Oromo ethnic group in Ethiopia. So they want to keep the Islamists out of power, and they will bring the U.S. into it, if they can.
By early Summer of 2006, former Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, who advised the U.S. Secretary of State and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs on African matters, was quietly working behind the scenes to facilitate the invasion of Somalia and spinning a web of lies and deception to conceal the nature of U.S. involvement. By mid-July 2006, the die had been cast and the initial invasion of Somalia had occurred when Zenawi deployed a contingent of his troops to prop up the TGF. In the preceding weeks, Frazer was priming the diplomatic circles and mollifying world public opinion by claiming that while the U.S. does not support an invasion of Somalia, it will not allow the “disintegration” of the TGF by jihadists and will “rally” to support Zenawi if he were to invade2:
A confidential UN cable obtained by Human Rights Watch indicates that in a conversation with UN officials in June 2006, US Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer noted that the situation in Somalia was ‘uncertain.’ According to the notes, she presented the view that Eritrea had stepped over the line and that Ethiopia viewed Eritrean action in Somalia ‘as tantamount to opening a second front against Ethiopia.’ Dr. Frazer’s best-case scenario was that the ICU and TFG would engage in dialogue; the worst-case scenario was the expansion of the ICU throughout Somalia and the disintegration of the TFG. Dr. Frazer noted that the latter scenario would have a major negative impact in the Horn and that the US and IGAD would not allow it. She allegedly expressed the view that while the US feared an Ethiopian intervention could rally ‘foreign elements,’ the US would rally with Ethiopia if the ‘Jihadists’ took over.
By mid-December 2006, less than two weeks before Zenawi fully unleashed his “blitzkrieg” on Somalia and rumbled into Mogadishu, Fraser was setting the propaganda stage to convince the world that jihadists were provoking an Ethiopian attack. The N.Y. Times reported on December 14, 2006, that Frazer “said that diplomatic and intelligence officials believed that the Islamists could be trying to provoke an Ethiopian attack as a ‘rallying cry for support’ to their side.” On December 27, 2006, just as Zenawi’s troops were storming through the desert to Mogadishu after capturing the strategic town of Jowhar ninety miles to the north, the U.S. State Department endorsed the invasion by declaring that Islamist forces were creating “genuine security concerns” for Ethiopia. U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said: “Ethiopia has genuine security concerns with regard to developments in Somalia and has provided support at the request of the legitimate governing authority, the Transitional Federal institutions.”
All along, the U.S. had been working quietly with Zenawi providing training and military aid in manifest anticipation of the Somalia invasion. The invasion deal was sealed on December 4, 2006, when General John Abizaid, Commander of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), met with Zenawi in Addis Ababa on what was billed as a “courtesy call to an ally”. Following Zenawi’s invasion of Somalia three weeks later, it became clear that the “courtesy call” was actually “the final handshake” to go forward with a full scale invasion3. On January 8, 2007, a little over a week after Zenawi’s troops had triumphantly captured Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, U.S.A. TODAY reported4 :
The U.S. and Ethiopian militaries have ‘a close working relationship,’ Pentagon spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Joe Carpenter said. The ties include intelligence sharing, arms aid and training that gives the Ethiopians ‘the capacity to defend their borders and intercept terrorists and weapons of mass destruction,’ he said. There are about 100 U.S. military personnel currently working in Ethiopia, Carpenter said.
Two weeks earlier on December 24, 2006, as heavy shelling and air strikes were directed at “jihadist” forces in border areas and the town of Beledweyne was being bombarded, Zenawi had described his decision to invade Somalia using almost the same words as the Pentagon. In a televised address Zenawi said, “Ethiopian defense forces were forced to enter into war to the protect the sovereignty of the nation and to blunt repeated attacks by Islamic courts terrorists and anti-Ethiopian elements they are supporting.”
By August 2007, Zenawi’s troops were bogged down in Somalia and the human cost was proving to be horrendous: Tens of thousands of civilians had died and over 870,000 Somalis had been forced to flee their homes in Mogadishu alone. By then, Somalia could only be described as “as one of the worst humanitarian situations in Africa.” The U.S. could see a huge blowback heading its way; it was time to take cover. Fraser did not blink once when she threw Zenawi under the bus. She said it was all Zenawi’s fault. On September 6, 2007, TIME Magazine reported5:
But, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jendayi Frazer has said, Washington opposed the invasion of Somalia. ‘We urged the Ethiopian military not to go into Somalia,’ said Frazer last month. ‘They did so because of their own national-security interests.’ This version of events, contrary to a common perception that the invasion was backed or even initiated by the U.S., is supported by accounts of a November 2006 meeting in Addis between Meles and the then head of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid. Sources from both sides relate that Abizaid told Meles he was ‘not allowed’ to invade Somalia, adding Somalia would become ‘Ethiopia’s Iraq.’ (An official in Washington disputes the precise language, but confirms the essence of the discussion.)
Fraser repeated the same story line on February 12, 2008, when she told Newsweek Magazine6:
We told them Ethiopia that they should not go in. Once they went in absolutely we had to try to assist them and the Somali transitional federal government, which had invited them in. We support the transitional federal government and its decision to ask the Ethiopians to assist them.
The web of lies and deception had come to a complete circle in late 2007, and the “fantastic Somalia job” had managed to create a grotesque theater of death and destruction throughout Somalia.
The Jihadists Are Coming!
As many of my readers are aware, I have written extensively on the illegal invasion of Somalia on a number of occasions. I will reference three columns that I wrote on the issue. On November 28, 2006, a month before Zenawi’s tanks “blitzkrieged” their way into Mogadishu, I wrote a column entitled, “The Jihadists are Coming!”, arguing that Zenawi had fabricated the Somali jihadist threat to deflect attention from his dismal human rights record and repression and to buy the good will and diplomatic support of the U.S.7:
But the whole jihadist business smacks of political fantasy. It’s surreal. Mr. Zenawi says the Somali jihadists and their Al Qaeda partners should be opposed and defeated because they are undemocratic, anti-democratic, oppressive and authoritarian. The jihadists don’t believe in human rights and do not allow political or social dissent. They are fanatics who want to impose one-party rule, and do not believe in a democracy where the people elect their representatives. Duh!!! Has Mr. Zenawi looked at the mirror lately?
On October 2, 2008, in a column entitled, “The End of Pax Zenawi in Somalia”, I questioned whether the military effort to impose “Zenawi’s Peace” on the Somali people had finally collapsed8:
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…. 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?
On November 3, 2008, I followed up with another column entitled, “The 843-Day War”, based on a systematic content analysis of Zenawi’s public statements, and laid out the intricately fabricated sophistry Zenawi had used to justify his invasion of Somalia. I concluded:
It appears Zenawi completely underestimated the insurgents and the Somali people and overestimated the military prowess of his troops. He really did not know the Somalis as much as he thought he knew them. He underestimated their resolve to fight a force that had invaded and occupied their country.
Unmitigated Catastrophe in Somalia
Perhaps there is nothing surprising about disclosures of use of deceit and trumped-up intelligence by the Bush Administration to justify a proxy preemptive attack on a shattered nation that presented no credible threat to the United States. The tragedy is that by the time Zenawi had announced his decision to pull out his troops by December 2008, Somalia had become an “unmitigated catastrophe.” According to Human Rights Watch:
In 2008 the human rights and humanitarian situation in Somalia deteriorated into unmitigated catastrophe. Several thousand civilians have been killed in fighting. More than one million Somalis are now displaced from their homes and thousands flee across the country’s borders every month. Mogadishu, a bustling city of 1.2 million people in 2006, has seen more than 870,000 of its residents displaced by the armed conflict.
Someone, someday will be held accountable for all of the crimes against humanity, and the Almighty committed in Somalia.
The fact of the matter is that Zenawi would never invade Somalia except with the blessing and full support of the U.S. He is too cunning, too calculating and too sly to invade Somalia all by himself and at the explicit and strong disapproval of the U.S., as it has been claimed by Frazer. It is interesting to note that the U.S. has never condemned Zenawi’s invasion of Somalia, despite protestations that the U.S. had strongly advised against invasion and warned Zenawi that “Somalia would be Ethiopia’s Iraq.” Suffice it to say that the story of the Somali invasion of 2006 is akin to two spiders spinning their webs to entangle each other and suddenly found themselves in the middle of a hornet’s nest.
On March 12, 2010, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamoto said, “We’ve made a lot of mistakes and Ethiopia’s entry in 2006 was not a really good idea.” He did not clarify the nature of the “mistakes”. Could it be that it was “not a really good idea” because the U.S. was exposed as a not-so-silent partner in the outsourced invasion of Somalia? Or could it be that it was a mistake because the hired gun botched the Somalia job? Perhaps the U.S. still supports Zenawi to the hilt because he did and continues to do such a “fantastic job in Somalia”.
As they say, “Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.” Well, it looks like Wikileaks is slowly lifting the curtain on the funny business the U.S. and Zenawi have been doing in the dark all these years.
RELEASE ALL ETHIOPIAN POLITICAL PRISONERS.
2 See “Shell-Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu,” Human Rights Watch, Vol. 19, 12(a), August 2007, p. 22, fn. 63.
10 Human Rights Watch, “So Much to Fear: War Crimes and the Devastation of Somalia,” December 2008, p.19
* Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on pambazuka.org, allafrica.com, newamericamedia.org and other sites.