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
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.
The flood relief activities in eastern Ethiopia, for example, may have helped provide a screen for the U.S. military to conduct reconnaissance activities on the Islamists just across the border in Somalia. The Kenyan veterinarian program, meanwhile, took place in the Lamu archipelago, an island chain just south of Somalia that has been used in the past as a transit point by Islamic radicals moving along the Swahili coast. When one plots the U.S. military's civil affairs presence on a map of the Horn, it is no coincidence that they follow a rough arc along the Somali border and other trouble spots that the United States has an interest in keeping an eye on.
Ironically, these sorts of missions were not what the Pentagon had in mind for CJTF-HOA when it was created in 2002. At that time, the concern was that large numbers of foreign jihadists would flock to the Horn of Africa from Afghanistan and the Middle East, drawn by its porous borders, weak governments, and large Muslim populations--and that the U.S. military needed to be ready to take direct action against them.
This was not an unreasonable calculus. Although Americans tend to think of Africa as a continent apart from the rest of the Muslim world, this division is more imagined than real. Shared waters bind together Arabia, South Asia, and the Horn. At the chokepoint where the Gulf of Aden meets the Red Sea, it's only an hour's ride on a speedboat between Djibouti and Yemen.
But not until the seizure of Mogadishu by the Islamists last year did the large-scale terrorist infrastructure that Pentagon planners had feared materialize. In the meantime, CJTF-HOA began emphasizing military training and civil affairs as a new justification for its existence. Not that Camp Lemonier was without its uses: For one thing, it provided a platform for unconventional operations against specific targets--most famously, the CIA's use of a Predator drone to assassinate al Qaeda operative Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi in November 2002.
Regardless of its rationale, the reinvented task force has won some influential supporters, including retiring CENTCOM commander General John Abizaid, under whose authority the Horn of Africa falls. Abizaid has described CJTF-HOA as a "blueprint" for the future. "Dollar for dollar and person for person, our return on our investment out here is better than it is anywhere in the CENTCOM [area of responsibility]," he commented.
The task force has fewer than 2,000 U.S. troops, an economy of force that advocates like Abizaid argue keeps the U.S. military under the radar and prevents it from stirring up local or global resentments. In Somalia, this strategy seems to have worked: The U.S. military has provided training and support for the Ethiopian military, and it furnished Addis Ababa with intelligence before and during the invasion of Mogadishu, but the details of the Pentagon's involvement passed largely unnoticed in the media.
This presents more reasons the use of the Ethiopians in Somalia was so appealing. U.S. land forces and political will had been tapped out by Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, any U.S. involvement in the Horn of Africa would stir up memories of "Black Hawk down." Military operations by Ethiopia, by contrast, aren't liable to provoke the kind of international outrage or diplomatic dislocations that a U.S. attack would elicit.
That's not to say there aren't still risks. If the invasion turns into a quagmire, the media--not to mention our African partners--are sure to start placing quite a bit more emphasis on the Bush administration's role (as happened after the collapse of the CIA-supported warlord coalition earlier this year). Relying on proxies may afford greater freedom of action initially, but spectacular failure is still likely to boomerang back onto Washington.
And even when the media are looking the other way, our enemies are not. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al Qaeda's number two, has already issued a recording calling Somalia "one of the crusader battlefields that are being launched by America ... against Islam," a message that will no doubt resonate in the Muslim world.
The use of proxy forces involves other, more fundamental, risks--foremost, a lack of control over agents, often when it matters most. The United States can offer an impressive range of inducements to make the Ethiopians do what they otherwise might not desire to do, but they retain control over their army in Somalia. They decide where they will deploy, whom they will empower, when they will leave, and how they will behave while there. As the United States should have discovered at Tora Bora in 2001 and in Baghdad in 2005, this reliance can create dangers that should at least caution against any surfeit of confidence in our allies.
Alas, the United States has a recurring habit of allowing its strategic thinking to get clouded, if not wholly captured, by its client states--seeing its allies as it wishes them to be, and not as they are. This problem is sharply reflected in CJTF-HOA's civil affairs projects, which soldiers dutifully insist are intended to support the host government in whose territory they are undertaken. This line may make a certain amount of sense in Iraq or Afghanistan--where the U.S. intervention stands or falls with the national leadership we have helped install--but in many parts of Africa, the appeal of U.S. aid stems directly from the deliberate neglect and dis regard of the regime for its people. This suggests the need for a more nuanced approach in these places, in which the United States would achieve its maximum advantage only by adroitly navigating among national leaders, local elites, and the general public.
This, of course, requires detailed local knowledge, individual contacts, and a long institutional memory--none of which CJTF-HOA is designed to possess. Rather than designating a particular group of units to rotate through the Horn of Africa--thus allowing a body of soldiers to grow familiar with its languages, cultures, politics, and personalities--CJTF-HOA has often ended up with whoever wasn't bound for Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite Abizaid's praise, the task force does not appear to be a Pentagon priority. Until recently, in fact, "it was four years' worth of six-month or one-year rotations," one military official in Djibouti told me, frustrated. "There was no institutional memory."
Any solution to these institutional problems will, of course, come too late for the opportunity now presented in Somalia. What's required there, and immediately, is a military force that can restore order to Mogadishu. While many Somalis seem genuinely relieved to be rid of the Islamists and their prohibitions against foreign music and movies, the return of warlords, militias, and rampant banditry to the capital city must be confronted at once. As one resident told the Washington Post, "Now has come a problem bigger than not being able to watch a film. Now, you could lose your life."
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer has been in Addis Ababa this past week, helping to lead diplomatic efforts to cobble together the 8,000-strong African peacekeeping force to follow the Ethiopians into Somalia, as endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. The Bush administration has also deployed ships on the Somali coast to block the escape of jihadists and has pledged $40 million to aid the reconstruction of the government. Until peacekeepers arrive, the United States should press the Ethiopians to provide elementary security--despite concerns that their presence might stoke Somali nationalism. It should also be ready to lend additional military assets to the peacekeeping effort--in particular, airlift, intelligence sharing, basic supplies, as well as the humanitarian resources of CJTF-HOA.
It is far too soon to judge whether any combination of diplomacy and resources will produce anything that resembles success in Somalia. But while there is no room for complacency, there may be--for the first time, in a long time--a slim cause for hope in this long-suffering country.
Vance Serchuk, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, traveled in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya last summer.