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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.