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By dawn the Islamists were gone
After a stunning victory over its Islamist enemies, the government has to act quickly if the country is not to slip back into its usual civil strife
ETHIOPIAN military jets flew low over the hot, blue-black waters of Ras Kamboni on January 1st. They were looking for retreating Somali Islamist fighters. Anywhere between 500 and 1,000 hardliners, including foreign fighters and possibly al-Qaeda operatives, had abandoned their defence of Kismayo, a fishing town 150km (93 miles) up the Somali coast from the Kenyan border. Ras Kamboni, a thickly forested tropical island near the border, was a known training camp for the Islamists.
The retreat from Kismayo the day before had been sudden. Locals said the fighters had abandoned the front-line after nightfall and “melted into the darkness”. By dawn, they were gone. Islamist field commanders had promised to defend the town against the combined advancing forces of the Somali transitional government and Ethiopia, its main backer. Despite having been almost driven into the sea by 12 days of bludgeoning one-sided engagements, the Islamists promised to turn Kismayo into an Ethiopian cemetery.
In reality the landmines, trenches and press-ganged boy fighters were used only to buy time for the most committed Islamists to slip away. They seem to have gone in several directions, some towards Ras Kamboni, others into the salty mangrove swamps or the trackless malaria-infested bush along the Juba river. Ethiopian tanks, which had torn through the Islamist front-lines in the flatlands of central Somalia, could not follow them. The military commander of the Islamists, Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, may have travelled to Mecca for the haj (morbidly, some thought, given that he might well be killed before the next pilgrimage). America's Fifth Fleet is patrolling the coast between Mogadishu and Ras Kamboni to prevent Islamists escaping, and special forces may have been landed to track them through the swamps.
Kenya has tightened security at its border crossings, though that means little on such a porous border, populated by ethnic Somalis on the Kenyan side. The Kenyans did make a few arrests of fleeing combatants, apparently including a commander from an Ethiopian separatist group and an Eritrean army colonel, each carrying wodges of cash. Ethiopian military helicopters flew low over the hills, but their limited range made it difficult to flush out the Islamists. Their intelligence was also faulty; one helicopter accidentally strafed a Kenyan border post.
It has been an extraordinary fortnight in Somalia. From being holed up in Baidoa, surrounded by Islamist forces, the internationally backed transitional government has achieved an astonishingly quick victory over its foes, albeit with Ethiopian tanks, planes and artillery. Having roared of a holy war on Ethiopia in October, the Islamists were shown to be a paper tiger.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that the hardliners over-reached themselves, making some serious miscalculations. The first was to make a deal with Eritrea, the local pariah state, for arms and military trainers—some of the arms coming from third parties in the Middle East. That caused Ethiopia, Eritrea's greatest enemy, to step up its support for the weak Somali transitional government in Baidoa. Ethiopia has one of Africa's biggest armies, and, more importantly, an air force that proved to be highly effective in the brief campaign. Eritrean and other Arab meddling was also a factor in tacit American support for the Ethiopian intervention.
The second and more serious miscalculation of the hardliners was to dismiss a deal that moderate Islamists were close to making with the transitional government: many moderates thus refused to fight. The third mistake was to attack the transitional government and Ethiopian positions in front of Baidoa on December 19th. That gave Ethiopia the pretext it needed for a full-blooded assault on the Islamists. Their fighters were literally shredded on the battlefield. The bulk of the Islamists retreated to Mogadishu. Street-to-street fighting seemed inevitable when Ethiopia strafed its airport on December 25th. But the Islamists left soon after, saying they wanted to spare the city.
The prime minister of the transitional government, Mohamed Gedi, now wants to capture or kill the fleeing hardliners “at any cost”. Although the Islamist collapse was quicker than expected, the danger is that this convincing conventional victory for the Ethiopians may be followed by an Islamist insurgency, drawing in support from militant Muslims around the world. Indeed, it would be hard to find a better recruiting poster for would-be jihadists than the Russian-built tanks of “Christian” Ethiopia bogged down in a Muslim tropical paradise. In a Taliban-like phone call from the bush, an Islamist commander promised that the movement would “rise from the ashes”.
It may well. Already there have been several unexplained bomb blasts in Mogadishu, one of them directed at a hotel where Ethiopian army officers are billeted. Two Ethiopian soldiers were shot dead on January 2nd, probably by Islamists. There is a real possibility that what army types call “asymmetrical warfare” will include suicide-bombings, in Kenya as well as in Somalia and Ethiopia. One aim would be to stir up hatred between Christians and Muslims in the region. Among the key commanders now on the run is Aden Hashi Farah Ayro. His network has grown in the last months to perhaps 200 fighters. Mr Ayro is young, around 30, and is thought to have trained in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. He is wanted for his suspected involvement in the killings of several foreigners in Somalia and Somaliland. He is one of those in charge of the sleeper-cells that are likely to have stayed in Mogadishu and elsewhere, waiting to strike.
Ethiopia claims to have killed 3,000 Islamists and wounded a further 5,000. The International Red Cross put the number of wounded at 850, with several hundred dead. The routing of Islamists on the battlefield by secular-minded Somalis backed by Ethiopia is certainly a major embarrassment for al-Qaeda: when faced with a chance to be a martyr in a jihad, nearly all Somalis shied away. But as in Iraq, everything depends on what comes next.
The early signs are not promising. For a start, the warlords are back in town. The single greatest achievement of the Islamic courts was to provide a reasonably peaceful alternative to the chieftains who ruled Mogadishu and other towns, greedily and often demonically, following the collapse of the Siad Barre regime in 1991, the last time that Somalia had anything resembling a normal government. This is the main reason why the Islamists were able to gather the popular support that they did. Although the Islamists were austere, they delivered security, orderliness and even a sense of pride to many in Mogadishu. Where the warlords had roadblocks, the Islamists had street-cleaners.
The outside world's focus on the hardliners and their possible links with al-Qaeda often missed the influence of the moderates, particularly the large traditionalist Sufi organisations. They are among the biggest educators in a largely illiterate country, helping run Mogadishu University, where many of the classes are taught in English. The nominal leader of the Islamists, Sheikh Sharif Ahmed, was himself once a school geography teacher.
By contrast, feelings about the warlords are unequivocal. “They are absolute bastards,” says one Somali watcher, “illiterate, syphilitic, irrational killers.” Some are a little better than others, and several hold ministerial positions in the transitional government, but for the most part they remain motivated solely by money, including what they can make from moving arms and qat, the addictive narcotic leaf on which many Somalis waste their meagre daily salaries. If the transitional government does not stand up to warlordism quickly—and there are few signs that it will—it might be that Mogadishu's few months under “terrorist” Islamist rule will come to be viewed as a golden moment.
The return of the warlords may also presage a return to the clan violence that ruined Somalia. To avert this, Mr Gedi has called for three months of martial law in Mogadishu, presumably to be enforced by Ethiopian troops. But his insistence on voluntary disarmament looks optimistic. Most of Somali politics takes place at the sub-clan level, opaque to all but a few insiders, but the broad outlines are clear. The Islamic courts gained their initial support from the Hawiye clan, which controls Mogadishu. Hawiye elders feel under-represented in the transitional government. Mr Gedi is a Hawiye, but despised by his kinsmen. Any national reconciliation has to involve the Hawiye, so that may mean removing Mr Gedi from office, something that the transitional government and its backers oppose.
The presence of the Ethiopians gives Somalia a chance to rebuild, but it is a big problem too. Ethiopia deserves credit for the efficiency of its military campaign, which was partly conducted out of self-defence; its victories have eased the threat of an Islamist advance into Ethiopia and across the rest of the Horn. Even so, Somalis object to Ethiopians on their soil in much the same way that Irish citizens might object to a British military advance on Dublin, the more so since the Ethiopians are taken by many Somalis to be doing the bidding of America. A temporary stability guaranteed by the presence of Ethiopian troops offers no prospect of a lasting solution to the country's problems.
For all its careful presentation, Ethiopia's involvement could already have fatally undermined the transitional government. At the very least it looks bad for Somali ministers to be ferried around in Ethiopian military helicopters, and to be receiving instructions from the Ethiopian foreign minister. Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, is adamant that his troops will be out of Somalia within weeks. But the timing of such a withdrawal has assumed critical importance. A hasty exit could precipitate clan fighting in Mogadishu. A lengthy stay will give cause to an Islamist insurgency—and provide the insurgents with targets.
For now, Mr Zenawi will press home his advantage. Slaughtering Islamists in the mangroves may earn Ethiopia the enmity of global jihadists, but it will win the widely unpopular Mr Zenawi much-needed political support at home and cash from a grateful America.
But killing the hardline Islamists will not make Somalia any more peaceful. Only a few of those on the run are proper terrorists. Some could return to play a useful role in a government of national unity—perhaps the best chance of preventing Somalia from slipping back into its customary civil strife. Mr Ahmed, a Hawiye, has useful connections with clerics, clan elders and the young. He might be an asset to a government of national unity, even if, in the first flush of victory, the transitional government might not see the need for that kind of concession. It will also be important to bring in the businessmen who backed the Islamists in return for protection from warlord militias.
A few weeks ago an international peacekeeping force seemed an unnecessary provocation. Now it looks like an imperative; it will take months for the transitional government to raise a proper national army to replace the Ethiopians. An intense diplomatic effort is under way in Nairobi and elsewhere to put a force on the ground within weeks. A UN-mandated force drawn from Muslim countries ( Indonesia and Malaysia are popular choices among Somalis) could allow Ethiopian troops to leave gracefully. An African Union force may be less effective, given its seeming bias towards Ethiopia, where the organisation has its headquarters. The question is whether such a force can be deployed before clan fighting and an Islamist insurgency take hold.
Source: The Economist