The Magazine

Ethiopia versus the Islamists

What the U.S. military has been up to in the Horn of Africa.

Jan 15, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 17 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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After holding Mogadishu for six months, Somalia's Islamists have been swept from power, ousted in a blitzkrieg attack by the Ethiopian military. The nature of the emerging political order in Somalia remains profoundly uncertain, with the retreating Islamists threatening to wage an Iraq-style insurgency, and the internationally recognized Somali government facing doubts about its popular legitimacy, internal cohesion, and ability to ensure even basic security. Still, the battlefield gains of the past two weeks have created a rare window of opportunity in this long-suffering corner of the Horn of Africa, as well as in the broader war on terror.

The rout of the Islamists also represents a surprising success for the Bush administration, whose Somalia policy seemed hopelessly mired in interagency acrimony just a few months ago. Following the defeat of a coalition of CIA-backed "secular" warlords by the Islamists earlier this year, angry accusations flew from the State Department about Langley's botched efforts, which seemed to have helped consolidate the very threat they were intended to preempt.

Yet ultimately, it was the behavior of the Islamists themselves, once established in power, that spurred key officials at Foggy Bottom to embrace a new, more aggressive set of policies. Prisoners to their ideology, the hardliners in Mogadishu failed to take the pragmatic steps that could have led to a rapprochement with the United States and allowed them to outflank the hapless "official" Somali government. Instead, the Islamists continued to shelter several known al Qaeda operatives, while welcoming other foreign jihadists into their ranks.

Thus the longstanding Somalia problem came to metastasize over the past six months. No longer just a failed state that could be occasionally exploited by terrorists, it was turning into something more threatening: an active and steadfast ally of the global jihadist movement. In the face of this new and deepening danger, the State Department, it seems, tacitly decided it was time to give war a chance.

Equally important as Foggy Bottom's willingness to accept Ethiopian military intervention, however, was the capacity of Addis Ababa's armed forces to execute it effectively. In this regard, the swift rollback of the Islamists also offers something of a vindication of the Pentagon's long-term strategy in the Horn of Africa, and its investments there.

The lead actor in this case has been Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, or CJTF-HOA. Headquartered at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti--a sweltering speck of a country wedged at the intersection of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and the Gulf of Aden--the U.S. military presence does not look like much: a rough and tumble collection of air-conditioned tents, prefab trailers, and plywood shacks, perched between the scruffy Djiboutian capital and a volcanic desert. A French colony until 1977, Djibouti remains home to Paris's largest overseas military contingent. Foreign Legionnaires jog on the perimeter of the U.S. compound, while Mirage fighter jets fly overhead. (U.S. troops note their neighbors have a special fondness for buzzing low over Camp Lemonier early on Sunday mornings.)

CJTF-HOA--which constitutes the U.S. military's first post-9/11 outpost in sub-Saharan Africa--has been at the epicenter of an ambitious effort by the Pentagon to bulk up the capabilities of indigenous militaries in the region. The task force provides training and equipment to key allies such as Ethiopia. CJTF-HOA has also been working extensively with the Ugandan army, which has announced it will contribute troops to the peacekeeping force being planned for Somalia. Although officials at Camp Lemonier insist they are not in the business of recreating the King's African Rifles or other such native levies, the task force's activities fit squarely with what last year's Quadrennial Defense Review described as a "shifting emphasis" toward the use of "surrogates" in the war on terror.

Civil affairs is another focus of the task force. In December alone, CJTF-HOA troops airlifted food to flood victims in Ethiopia, treated livestock in Kenya, and refurbished an orphanage in Djibouti. The working assumption is that a recurring U.S. military presence in these areas makes it harder for extremists to operate openly in them, and that even modest outlays of aid can help win public support. Also, when it comes to gathering detailed information about these collapsed corners of the developing world, there's no substitute for being on the ground.