Friday, May 02, 2008


A US air strike has killed Aden Hashi Ayro, the military head of al-Shabab - a violent Islamist militia group - in Somalia. Because the world's media could turn up in a nicely air conditioned briefing room to hear a CENTCOM spokesman say "al-Qaeda" about 75 times and, basically, because deep down we all get interested when shit gets blown up - Somalia has made it back into the headlines. It will remain there for the next few hours until shit gets blown up somewhere else in the world and until a different spokesman comes to another podium to explain why that shit got blown up.

Meanwhile Somalia will remain probably the most severe humanitarian crisis in the world; the fighting has displaced hundreds of thousands in a country already suffering massively from drought induced hunger and poverty. The fighting is predominantly between different clans. The media makes much of Islamist groups like al-Shabab that split from the wider Islamic Courts Union being "Islamist", and this is often followed with "linked to al-Qaeda" just to ram home their all round nastiness. They are very nasty, but then so are the people they are fighting so we shouldn't be selective with our disgust. The al-Qaeda link is also there, but it is also pretty irrelevant as al-Qaeda's experience in Somalia was about as messy as everyone else's. The Islamist insurgency in Somalia is predominantly focused on expelling the Ethiopian army who invaded Somalia a year ago in an effort to end the growing power of the Islamic Courts Union. Instead, the Ethiopians seem to have in the main provided convenient targets for al-Shabab, along with a nationalist cause to attract less extreme Somali fighters to the extremists' Jihad.

The importance of clan and sub-clan loyalties is also rarely discussed in reference to the Somali situation in the western media, but listen to Somalis and it is front and centre. Just as in Afghanistan the Taliban were rarely described as a specifically Pashtun phenomenon, in Somalia the fact that the Islamists tend to come from certain clan alliances is also missed. Certain clans are backing the Transitional Federal Government (which is supported by Ethiopia, the US and to some degree by the rest of the international community), other clans are not and therefore either side with the Islamists, or indeed are the Islamist militias. The anti-Ethiopian forces are also heavily supported by Eritrea, a basket-case totalitarian regime in its own right. The Eritreans have no ideological sympathy with the Islamists at all, they just like to kill Ethiopians and are happy to help others do that. Stuck in the middle of this hell, along with all the victimised, starving civilians is the African Union's amusingly titled "peacekeeping mission". This comprises of a few thousand Ugandans and Burundians and must qualify for one of the shittiest jobs anywhere: being neutral none of the sides seem to think much of them. It was presumably inter-clan intrigue that provided the U.S. with the intelligence it needed to get their guy. Of course they didn't quite just get their guy, they got all his mates and by the sounds of it some seven surrounding villagers as well. The U.S. keeps showing itself to be relatively indifferent to collateral damage in Somalia, which helps to bolster the Islamists in the eyes of some of their countrymen.


Daveed said...

It is too easy for you to accuse the Eritreans as basket case totoitarian regime, which conveniently seems to be propagated in the media too.

You have to ask yourself, why is the west specially the US meddling with the already resolved issue of the border, is it not because the Americans are in bed with the Ethiopians.

We in the west can not hark about democracy and rule of law, and undermine it at every opportunity and blame the victim.

Anonymous said...

Somalia seems to have evolved almost maliciously to test the genuine peace-keeping resolve of the international community. Sadly as long as (1) its tribal/ clan composition entrenches instability and (2) there are no resources to exploit or safeguard, it is perfectly rational for western countries not to risk their soldiers there.

the other Toby

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Daveed, the Eritrean government is no victim, it is a victimizer of its own people. The fact that the U.S. has cynically allied itself with Eritrea's rival, Ethiopia - that is a mass violator of human rights as well, does not alter the facts about Eritrea. Slate has done a very good job of covering that region and its tragedy, just follow the links within the story you linked here.

Toby - I don't think there is really a test for Western countries and peacekeeping in Somalia - or not since the early 90s when the US took it and failed! I'm increasingly cynical about how the EU and other rich countries always expect the "UN" as if that is something different to them, to do the "peace keeping". Look at Chad - the EU force will be there for a year and they are talk about the UN being their exit strategy. This is basically outsourcing security operations to India/Pakistan/Bangladesh who are in for the money. Then people sound shocked about the corruption scandals that the BBC have been discussing all week in Congo with the Pakistani "peacekeepers" enriching themselves at the expense of peace.

Anonymous said...

I suppose I wondered what the point was you were making in your blog? The tone of your writing suggests distaste for western indifference towards Somalia, yet we seem to be agreed that there's nothing much that can practically be done?

the O.T.

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Hmmm... very good question and one I need to think more about. I suppose my anger is more to do with the many missteps that have already been taken, which have made a solution even more difficult. There are a number of things that could be done - I don't know enough to know if they are really good ideas but they at least deserve further consideration.
1) Let Somaliland secede - if Kosovo can, why not Somaliland? Arguably its better run than Kosovo and much cheaper for the international community. Not all of Somalia is a disaster - if the relatively well run bit wants to be separate - would it actually make things worse than they are currently? Of course expect much Russian and Chinese stomping of feet for reasons nothing to do with Somaliland.
2) Pressure the Ethiopians to withdraw. This would take some of the sting out of the nationalist call of the radical groups.
3) Pressure the Eritreans to stop arming spoiler groups. Not sure how you pressure Eritrea though...
4) The US should stop relying on air power to kill individual terrorist, particularly with instruments as blunt as AC130 Spectres. If they keep killing civilians it just makes the situation worse. If they really need to kill people can't they pay someone to do it with a pistol?
5) Support/pressure AU to lead a peace process backed by a more powerful peace enforcement mission than the current Ugandans.