Apparently aided by a lobbying firm DLA Piper, HR 568o is stalled in the House of Representatives.
But why do people think the Meles government’s status as a US “ally on the war of terror” an insurmountable obstacle? The Pro-EPRDF lobby tells its supporters to help quash HR 5680 by informing US legislators that Ethiopia is an “ally on the war on terror,” as if that is an infallible logic.
But what kind of ally has the Ethiopian government been?
With all due respect to conventional wisdom, what is happening in Somalia is the strongest argument the opposition has to convince the US to sever its ties with the EPRDF. Further appeasement of the Meles regime is putting not only American interests in jeopardy, but it is contributing to the creation of a new haven of terrorism in one of the most dangerous and volatile areas in the world.
It is extremely important to understand how in the world one of the most secular and moderate Muslim nations is now teetering on the brink of sharia law thumping extremists who think watching soccer is an assault on Islam.
15 years after Somalia descended into anarchy in 1991, life has been one of sheer horror for Somalis. As the Council on Foreign Relation’s backgrounder on the rise of extremism in Somalis states, the various warlords who took over Somalia in 1991:
“were notorious for indiscriminate violence: Women and girls were often raped and locals could not move about the city without fear of being killed.”
Corruption was as rampant as the violence. The BBC reported people have “been afraid to leave [their] house” for 15 years.
The neighboring Ethiopian government, led by a rabid Marxist ethnicologist who got the Bill Clinton “Enlightened African leader” stamp of approval, was sanguine with the lawlessness in Somalia, even encouraging it, believing that a fractured Somalia was in the Meles government’s best interest. It postured itself as a fighter of terrorism, and an understandably skittish post-9/11 Bush Administration poured money and expertise into Prime Minister Meles’s “terror fighting” apparatus. (Sadly, US-made Humvees meant for this purpose were later used to gun down unarmed protestors. Awkward.)
As we learnt in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and countless other places, people eventually tire of lawlessness and fear. They look for any other option that might offer peace and stability. Stability in fractured Muslim states, unfortunately, is exactly what Al-Qaeda and extremists look for to set roots.
Enter the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia.
A network of 11 Islamic courts has been set in recent years in Mogadishu, funded by businessmen who preferred any semblance of law and order to complete anarchy.
The courts' stated goal is to restore a system of Sharia law in the city and put an end to impunity and fighting on the streets.
By any standards, the ICU provided beleaguered Somalis a breather. Despite the first transitional Somali government being created in Kenya in October 2004, it could not establish itself in the capital Mogadishu because of security concerns. It instead settled in Baidoa, a town in southern Somalia, in February 2006. This transitional government was a consortium of warlords. Its president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, is a warlord with ties to Ethiopia.
By the time this new government took its place as the only internationally recognized government in Somalia, the ICU had already managed to win the hearts and souls of Somalis.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ros is one of the most prolific analysts on one of my favorite blogs, The Counterterrorism Blog. He correctly surmised:
As the Islamic militias gain ground in Somalia, they encounter little resistance. Residents don't have much incentive to fight the ICU, since the transitional government did little to engender loyalty. In fact, many residents welcome the prospect of stability that the ICU brings to a country that has been ravaged by war. Moreover, some of the government's soldiers have defected to the ICU's force, further adding to the Islamic militia's strength.
Prime Minister Meles’ support lay behind the transitional government, which would have been noble (after all this was an internationally recognized outfit) except that, like most things Ato Meles does, it was calculated, shrewd and miserably self-serving. Instead of strengthening the transitional government because it would be good for disenfranchised Somalis, the Ethiopian government acted like a puppet master. Instead of playing this behind the scenes, it chose bombast. As always, the EPRDF and Ato Meles needed to be the center of attention, a God-complex that has been a recurring infliction in Meles’ administration.
Needing to strongly depict itself as an ally on the war on terror, thereby deflecting attention from the massive unrest in Ethiopia following the May 2005 elections, the Ethiopian government sent troops to Baidoa (after of course congenitally lying about it) to protect the transitional government. It raised the stakes by saying that it would “crush” the ICU.
Unfortunately, we forgot… What fuels jihadists more than a sense of “protecting the motherland” from invading infidels backed by the US? Nothing. The ICU declared a jihad against Ethiopia.
The world was shocked, shocked when on June 5 the ICU captured Mogadishu. It was a stunning loss only to those who were not following the situation closely. A coalition of warlords which had craftily aligned to form the “Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counter-Terrorism” in February 2006 was soundly defeated despite being backed by the US and Ethiopia.
Again from the CFR:
Despite its name, the ARPCT probably does little to combat terrorism and is more interested in maintaining the lawless status quo in which the warlords thrive. Experts say the moniker is an attempt to make the group appealing to Western governments, highlighting their battle against the spread of an Islamic militia. The scheme seems to have worked: In June there were widespread reports the United States was providing financial support to the ARPCT.
While one would think this would have given pause to the Bush administration to question how it got suckered into this quagmire, Washington chose instead to play a part in the creation of something called the International Contact Group on Somalia on June 15—well after things had started to deteriorate. Jendayi Frazer, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, who has been particularly unserious about the unfolding disaster in the Horn of Africa (she asked the Ethiopian opposition not to throw stones at government forces as a solution to the post-election killings in June and November 2005) , provided the usual boilerplate.
“What we're trying to do is gain greater information, fidelity, and also make it very clear to all entities in Somalia, whether it's clan elders, whether it's Islamic court militias, whether it's warlords, whether it's business people - however you want to characterize them - that these foreign terrorists are going to continue to be a critical interest of the United States. They have to be turned over."
It was perhaps the lowest point of US diplomacy in the Horn.
The unnerving thing is that even after the fall of Mogadishu, there was an opportunity to diffuse the situation had there been someone who thought about long term strategies to curb a new hub for extremists. (Sadly, according to a New York Times article, Michael Zorick, the State Department's political officer for Somalia, was “reassigned to Chad after he sent a cable to Washington criticizing Washington's policy of paying Somali warlords.”)
The chairman of the ICU, one Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, considered a moderate element within the Union, had written a four-page letter to the UN, EU and the US calling, as the BBC reported, for “the establishment of friendly relations with the international community, based on mutual respect.” He continued, "We categorically deny and reject any accusation that were/are harboring any terrorists or supporters of terrorism," and adding, "We would like to establish a friendly relationship with the international community."
Sure it could have been a rouse, but it was an imminently exploitable one. It was an olive branch and seizing it before the ICU had a chance to regroup would have been helpful.
Even radical ICU leader Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a higher up in al-Itihaad al-Islaami, recognized by the US government as a terrorist organization, was careful to disassociate the ICU from Al-Qaeda.
In fact, there was reason to be optimistic even in early June. Quoting its editor of the Somali service, Yusuf Garaad Omar, the BBC reported:
"The Islamic courts and the transitional government need each other," [Omar] says. "One is the legal government, the other is a popular force in control of the capital."
But he warns that it is only a step forward on a long road towards the end of war. He says the Islamic courts are likely to become whatever others want them to be. If treated with respect - as partners - they could turn into the group which delivers the capital to the government and so end years of conflict.
But if they are viewed as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, that too, could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It is hard to believe that the ICU would have delivered Mogadishu to the transitional government and retreat, but it is a sentiment that is echoed by Professor Abdi Samatar from the University of Minneapolis:
I think Somalis have always been moderate practitioners of Islam and very, very free people. The same gentleman, Sheikh Sharif, also noted today that they are not interested in becoming ministers or government themselves -- that's the Islamic courts -- and that they will be using the Sharia law until such a time when a constitutional government is formed.
What they want to do is create the conditions in which the Somali people, and particularly the people of Mogadishu and the Banadir region, could be able to have determination as to which way they want to go
Who knows? But the fact remains that an opportunity for détente was willfully squandered. Who knows what would have happened if the US had not listened to the Ethiopian government’s braggadocio about “crushing” extremists? Instead, believing Ethiopia to be a reliable ally capable of containing extremism, the US decided on a proxy war approach.
What has unfolded since then should raise concern. Washington tightened its alliance with the Ethiopian government. Direct aid that had been cut off by the World Bank after the June and November killings were resumed. Paul Wolfowitz, the paragon of global democracy and a staunch architect of America’s moral war against tyranny, went on a highly publicized tour of Ethiopia, holding Meles’ hand and assuring the autocrat that between democracy and stability, the US would choose stability, however unstably. It was heartbreaking. Wolfowitz couldn’t even find a way to be discomforted by the imprisonment of 111 opposition leaders, journalists and civic group leaders which the Ethiopian government is trying for “genocide.” Perhaps he never got this letter.
With Ethiopia fanning the flames, the ICU started muscling in on the rest of Somalia. It captured the town of Beletuein, a stronghold of warlord Yusuf Ahmed Hagar, who also happened to be the transitional government’s nominee as governor of the Hiran region. Frigteningly, according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, this was a “significant strategic victory for the ICU” especially if it wants to “further spread its influence into Ethiopia.”
Soon, Harardhere, a port city fell, giving the ICU access to the Indian Ocean. Then Eldher fell. Then port city of Hobyo fell. Douglas Farah frustratingly noted that Kazakstan had now joined Eritrea as a supplier of arms to the ICU. (The president of Kazakhstan, a world-class kleptrocrat, will, incidentally, be hosted by President Bush at the White House at the end of September, and is also invited to Kennebunkport.)
Meanwhile, the ICU was getting stronger and more radicalized. It continued to use Ethiopia’s presence in Baidoa as a rallying call, and Somalis who initially had a symbiotic relationship with the ICU were now entrenched in the radical culture of jihad. ICU installed a “ program to disarm Somalis not affiliated with the Islamists.”
The transitional government started suffering massive defections and resignations due to its association with Ethiopia. (Ethiopia is itself going through its own spate of generals, soldiers and diplomatic staff defections.) Now emboldened, the ICU delayed talks with the transitional government.
The transitional government is now holed up in landlocked Baidoa, surrounded by an ever-expanding ICU force. Talks resumed on September 4.
"We are brothers, we can achieve a lot. We want to focus on ways and means to take Somalia out of its current debacle," Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden, speaker of Somalia's transitional parliament and leader of the government delegation, said at the opening of the Khartoum talks.
But here is the hair-raising part of Bill Roggio’s analysis on August 23. (Emphasis added.)
Both the Ethiopians and the Islamic Courts appear to be waiting for the other to make the first move and spark the war.
Well, guess what happened today?
“Twin Blasts In Somalia Apparent Assassination Attempt.”
Two explosions rocked the Somali town of Baidoa on Monday, killing the president's brother and three others in an apparent assassination attempt, officials said.
President Abdullahi Yusuf escaped unharmed, government spokesman Abdirahman Dinari said.
This is Al-Qaeda style terror: car bombs, assassinations. This is frightening.
So, again, how did one of the most moderate Muslim nations in the world disintegrate thus? What are the long term ramifications of war in the Horn now that the Ethiopian government will certainly venture out to “crush” anyone it deems is an enemy of the transitional government?
The best antidote to radicalism is a stable government that understands and is serious about the long-term benefits of democracy. The best antidote to curbing Al-Qaeda is leadership which has the respect and support of the people. The Meles government is viscerally not the former, and severely lacks the latter. By continuing to blindly support the current Ethiopian government (which is a slowly dying regime), Washington is fast losing the hearts and souls of Ethiopians, who have so far looked towards the United States as an ally of the people, not the government.
The current American Charge d’ Affaires to Ethiopia, Ms. Vicki Huddleston, has been incomprehensively incompetent and unfocused. She is a mediocre broker of peace, to put it kindly, and her support of a “fake CUD” to appease the Meles government was a great disservice to the Bush administration. Hopefully, Donald Yamamoto will be confirmed as US Ambassador soon. We need serious people dealing with this volatile situation.
It would be one thing if the US had no choice but to support the Meles regime in order to stabilize situations in Somalia. But the US has options. Sadly, democratically elected Members of Parliament are in prison, in exile or dead. These are pro-west, pro-free market thinkers, now betrayed by the very tenets which made hope in Ethiopia possible. It was unconscionable that the international community did not put its foot down when the Ethiopian government arrested and tried opposition members on absurd charges of genocide. This blog contended that once the “trials” start, it would be difficult to pull back and save face. It was another colossal mistake enabled by Ms. Huddleston and Ms. Frazer, who put enough pressure of the government to have genocide charges dropped against VOA employees, American citizens of Ethiopian decent. Alas, the rest of the opposition was left to fend for themselves against a well armed US ally.
One of my favorite bloggers, Robert Mayer at Publius Pundit, rightfully agonizes the importance of supporting Ethiopian democracy and (not versus) not supporting a tyrannical regime.
I realize that it is important to make sure that a Taliban-like regime is not established in Somalia, but at the same time the freedom of the Ethiopian people cannot be compromised because of it.
Bingo. The thing is, the two are not mutually exclusive. For the Taliban not to resurrect itself in a nation like Somalia which has miles and miles of porous borders, we need allies in nations surrounding Somalia that care more about Somali people than power mongering. The current Ethiopian regime has proven itself an unworthy ally that has been instrumental in radicalizing Somalia. Somalis have the right to choose their leaders. Unfortunately, the current Ethiopian government’s belligerent policies are pushing Somalia and peaceful Somalis towards intractable radicalism. Once extremism spreads, it is hard to pull it back. The US can’t afford to fight a new front on terror.
In the end, Ethiopians, especially the opposition, should be happy that theirs was a truly grass-roots movement towards democracy, unaided by the greatest democracy on earth. The Ethiopian Diaspora, maligned and harangued by the Ethiopian government and its embassies, has managed to nudge Rep. Chris Smith’s (R-New Jersey) and Rep. Donald Payne’s (D- New Jersey) bipartisan bill, HR 5680, through the International Relations Committee. It is now up to Speaker Dennis Hasterd to schedule it for a vote.
After what happened in Somalia today, the US should grab this last opportunity to still be a player in the Horn of Africa. After sending a strong message to the Meles government that its cozy “ally on the war on terror” status has cost the US dearly, the US should now insist on a negotiated settlement between the EPRDF and opposition parties. If Ethiopia descends into civil unrest, the US will be shut out from setting the agenda on Horn issues. That goes against US interests.
Without doubt, the Ethiopian government has contributed to the instability of Somalia. Ethiopia also has a significant moderate Muslim population. The US is on the verge of completely losing the hearts and minds of the majority Ethiopian population. That’s the majority of 77 million people.
Unquestionably, the US should conduct its foreign policy according to what is in its best self interest. In this case, the US’ best interest is to align itself with the Ethiopian people who are in a valiant fight for liberty. Sure swathing the current Ethiopian regime with yet another layer of bandages might seem most expedient. But doing what is expedient isn’t what made this country great.
It is not if, but when the Meles regime falls, the US should not be seen as the one who had prolonged the agony. It is exactly because Ethiopia is an ally of the US that HR 5680 should be passed!
Help pass HR 5680. Call your representative. Call Mr. Hasret’s office: Phone: 202-225-2976. Write to him: Fax: 202-225-0697. Email: DHastert2@housemail.house.gov. (Sample letter available at the HR5680 page here.)