Misunderstanding the Horn of Africa

As I was saying just days ago, Ethiopia and Somalia were approaching a state of war, and 36 hours later it was official: Ethiopia’s prime minister went on TV to say that his country had been “forced to enter into war,” just as Ethiopian jets bombed Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) positions in southern Somalia and Mogadishu International Airport. Merry Christmas.

Those blogs that are commenting on the news put it in simple terms of a struggle against a new Al Qaeda state.
NW Bloggers: “The Islamo-Fascists behind the Islamic Court regime in Somalia are of the same school and stripe as those we are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places. They blow up night clubs in Indonesia, and conduct terror raids in the Philippines. The Ethiopians understand that they are in a fight for their very survival. The least we can do is give them material support. After all, they are fighting for us as much as for themselves.”
Clear Politics: “If you do not want to see the holy war developing before your eyes, keep your head down, but if you do see, you will have to choose sides.”
7.62mm Justice: “We need to send support to Ethiopia immediately!”
Our Sovereign Joy: “The Islamists in Somalia have provoked Ehtiopia into war and the pm of Ethiopia saw this attack as absolutely necessary. The Muslims in Somalia have for quite some time carried out a brutal, cold-blooded slaughter of Somalis. This is Islam.”

Reality check:
* The UIC is Islamist and fundamentalist, but it (currently) bears no relationship with international terrorism.
* Ethiopia is historically Christian and Somalia is Muslim, but this is more of a national struggle than a religious conflict. Even if you want to see the UIC fall, in the words of Professor Pham quoted yesterday, “Ethiopia is the worst possible intervener in the Somali situation because of the history between the two peoples.”
* Many Somalis who oppose the UIC may nonetheless join them to combat what is perceived to be an Ethiopian war of aggression.

And what happens if Ethiopia scores an easy win? It’s possible — Ethiopia has an airforce and a real army, whereas the UIC is little more than a well-armed militia. But even if the UIC falls as easily as the Taliban, the so-called “Transitional Government” (backed by the Ethiopia, the US and the UN) couldn’t fight the UIC on its own, has little popular support (which will be reduced to nothing by its involvement with Ethiopia in the current conflict), and it is in no position to provide a real alternative to the UIC. Ethiopia, one of the world’s poorest countries, is likewise in no position to become a caretaker, even if it wins. As bad as it may sound, allowing the UIC to establish the rule of law (even if it is Shariah) may be the best option at the present time.

Yes, it’s real concern that the UIC could provide sanctuary to Islamic radicals if it ever got its act together. And that’s why the US is quietly backing Ethiopia. But the threat of destabilization posed by this is very real, especially in light of Eritrea’s involvement, combined with instability in surrounding areas such as Sudan and Chad. As noted days ago, this could blow up into Africa’s World War II. Painting it in simple terms of civilization v.s. terrorism are asking for trouble.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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26 Responses to Misunderstanding the Horn of Africa

  1. IJ says:

    “Ethiopia”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6208759.stm is loyal to the United Nations.

    The country is “the 8th highest contributor to UN Peacekeeping missions”:http://www.cominganarchy.com/2006/12/07/kaplan-on-the-isg/#comment-208492.

  2. Eddie says:

    This is pure folly and will only make relations with the UIC in the future that much more difficult. The “jihad” hasn’t even started yet, just wait until the foreign fighters arrive en masse. Somalia is already a conduit point for African fighters going to Iraq through the Levant Passage, I wonder how much it may trickle down to compensate for the far easier Ethiopian military targets available.

    Isn’t it worth considering the effects of a UIC directed/inspired terrorist campaign against Ethiopian interests?

    (I’m considering terrorism a given because of the number of known individuals with ties to African terror groups within the leadership of the UIC.)

  3. Sniper One says:

    This is an interesting piece. However, I disagree with you on some points. I do agree that this does threaten to send Africa into another world war.

    To say that the UIC bears no relationship to with international terror groups is mistaken. There have been several articles linking the UIC to Al Qaeda in the past few months. Including one from the Washington post.

    Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary for Africa, said Somalia’s Council of Islamic Courts is controlled by al-Qaida, The Washington Post reported Monday.

    Secondly, it is the UIC that has picked this fight with Ethiopia. They have been working towards this end for months.

    The UIC has been beheading people for not praying five times a day. They have been killing non-Muslims, and abusing the human rights of the people of Somalia. If you think those repressed people will fight for the UIC, you are going to find yourself mistaken.

    You fail to take into account that this already is a global war. “NW Bloggers” many of the front already in play. This is all part of the same battle against Global Jihad.

    Please do more reading up on the situation in the Horn of Africa.

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  6. hshvonhoffman says:

    Isn’t it amazing that the USA is now sending money and troops into the very same regions that were to blame for the ultimate bankruptcy and downfall of the USSR? I guess no one really ever learns from the mistakes of the past do they.

  7. Curzon says:

    Sniper 1: Frazer’s claim that the UIC is controlled by Al Qaeda, if that’s what she really said, is nonsense. At present, Al Qaeda is at very best a loose network of affiliates, not a monolithic command center. Sure, UIC could become Al Qaeda-friendly, but that’s a concern for the future, not today.

    Whether it was the UIC or Ethiopia who picked this fight is debatable. The UIC spent the past months stamping out their opponents — first warlords, then Yusuf’s “transitional government” — and it was here the Ethiopia got involved in trying to protect Yusuf. To a certain extent, it may be in the UIC’s interest to have an Ethiopian invasion, as it stands a good chance of evaporating opposition in Somalia — so deep is the hatred of their western neighbors.

    I don’t doubt that the UIC is an awful organization. The warlord who ruined Somalia for the past 15 years were also awful. I won’t shed any tears if the UIC leaders are hung high this time next week. But I restate my point: the threat of destabilization, especially in light of Eritrea’s involvement and instability in the surrounding regions, could make the entire region explode. If there’s any “reading up” to be done, it’s on that geopolitical point, not the humanitarian aspect, which is going to be awful regardless of who is in charge.

  8. subadei says:

    The AU has officially (finally) entered the scene and is “backing”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6209325.stm Ethiopia. This thing’s starting to smell more like a regional war. It’ll be interesting to see if Yemen maintains their support of the transitional government and how involved Egypt and the Sauds will become.

  9. subadei says:

    I forgot to add something here. As far as Al Qaeda is concerned. The Taliban captured Kabul and became the defacto rulers of Afghanistan in 1996. Two years later US missiles destroyed an Afghani complex deemed a terrorist training center operated by Osama bin Laden. While the two situations aren’t the same shunting aside concern in regards to an al Qaeda presence might not be such a good idea.

  10. Dan tdaxp says:


    I used justifications very similar to yours after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan. They were better than anarchy, they were not themselves a terrorist organization, etc. etc.

    Then 9/11 happened. And I really had trouble believing it. I really assumed that the Afghanistan connection was media hype.

    It is folly beyond words to let the enemy run the same play twice. Just as it is folly to care for this phony “stability.”

    Coming Anarchy? More like Present Equanimity, if you’re going to fall so far into the know-nothing camp of the realists.

  11. Curzon says:

    Subadei: I agree with the AU that every country must judge the measure of the threat to its own sovereignty by foreign powers and act accordingly. But we should measure how keen we are about such action and how much the US wants to get involved in light of the surrounding situation. This is not as simple as the Ethiopian government attacking a proto-Taliban force in Somalia.

    Dan: Don’t justify overreaction today with negligence of a decade ago. No one cared about Taliban and Al Qaeda connections in 1996. Today, the US and its allies are hypersensitive, and are paranoid that _any_ fundamentalist or Islamist power could be the next Taliban. As for the oft-stated US claim that the UIC is affiliated with Al Qaeda, there is no evidence of this whatsoever. Washington should at very least bide its time before becoming actively involved in the situation.

    And for all you are worried about the humanitarian aspect, don’t get your hopes up. Somalia is going to be a disaster regardless of who wins this war.

  12. Joe says:

    Today, the US and its allies are hypersensitive, and are paranoid that any fundamentalist or Islamist power could be the next Taliban.

    It’s not paranoia when everyone really is out to get you. Any failed state or theocratic despot land has strong potential to become a staging point for terrorism.

    Since Ethiopia has decided to go in, and since we know they aren’t going to help the situation in their present condition, there’s a damn good case for foreign involvement. I’ll agree that it should not be unilateral, though: the AU and other countries should be taking action on Resolution 1725 as well. It will be interesting to see whether the AU actually functions in this regard…

  13. Sniper One says:

    All of this is nicely academic. Since all of us are “wrong” in thinking that the UIC is Al Qaeda, etc… and thereby anything we suggest as a solution being “wrong”.

    I see a whole lot of interesting rhetoric, but no solutions. What exactly do you see as the solution?

  14. Curzon says:

    S1: Sorry if I sound “academic” (ugh). Solution? There is no solution per se in that Somalia will remain a humanitarian disaster and a geopolitical black hole regardless of what happens. I was ‘inspired’ to write this post just 36 hours after my previous post on the same topic because the only blog posts on technorati were saying things like “We need to send support to Ethiopia immediately!” Yikes. I stated in the post and in comments here why I think 1.) it’s not that simple, 2.) there are greater concerns at hand, namely a wider regional war, and 3.) even the best possible outcome from an Ethiopian win is still pretty miserable, and not something worth getting excited about.

    It would appear that Ethiopia is about to wipe the floor with the UIC, and I hope that win is decisive enough that Eritrea and other potential UIC allies decide its not worth backing the Islamists. Even so, the problem remains in how Ethiopia could possibly turn this military victory into a long-term win. The Somalia populace is nothing if not violently opposed to Ethiopia’s involvement, the so-called “interim government” has no real power, and all this gives the warlords a chance to make a comeback.

    Joe: Yes, every failed state could become a haven for terrorists, and of course we should keep our eye on Somalia. Heck, I’ve been posting about the ongoing situation in the Horn since my first day of blogging at CA. Just see point #3.

  15. Brian says:

    If you can pick up the previous month’s copy of the New Yorker, an intelligence expert from Austraila speaks about how it is wrong to reguard the various Islamic movments as part of a monolithic global movement.

    In fact, the expert, who studied the Islamic movements in Indonesia and the Phillipines, says that the best way to deal with the various terror networks is to treat them on a case by case basis. Most of the terror groups are based on family networks, and thus are very localized movements.

    Understand each movement’s local context and dealing with it from that perspective is the best way to combat our enemies. To treat all the Islamic movments as the same would be to repeat the mistakes of the Cold War era, when we thought China and Vietnam were all perfect allies of Soviet Russia; when there was nothing further from the truth.

  16. Sniper One says:

    There is no solution per se in that Somalia will remain a humanitarian disaster and a geopolitical black hole regardless of what happens.

    … and that is why is sounds academic, offering no solution to the problem, but only to recognize that a problem exists.

    I expect that you’re smarter than that, and if you really put your mind to it, you could come up with an “out of the box” solution.

    I suppose the real question, as you put it, is how do we support the “Interim Government” in Somalia so that the defeat of the UIC leads to a stronger Somali nation?

  17. subadei says:

    “”This is not as simple as the Ethiopian government attacking a proto-Taliban force in Somalia.

    Curzon, of that I have no doubt. I’m not suggesting an overt US diplomatic support of Ethiopia. I understand the regional aspect of this new war on the Horn. The presence of the AU backing the TG despite the tacit support of the IUC by AU members is just the start of what could devolve into a full on regional conflict. Especially as Ethiopian domestic unrest begins to grow (and it will) as more and more Islamic fighters are slain.

    However, whether Ethiopia successfully pounds the IUC into retreat (to Eritrea I’d reason) or finds itself at an impasse as foreign fighters stream into Somalia the fact that the more radical factions of Islam will focus on Somalia cannot be ignored or even put off as future concerns. As you said, Ethiopia is in no position to maintain a presence in a country whose general populace (let alone the resistance) is at odds with it’s presence. Eventually the IUC will be back and when it returns the elements of radical Islam will follow.

    Western states have grown accustomed to the theater of radical Islamism being manifested within various hot spots in the middle east and south east asia. They really, really need to start scrutinizing the horn of Africa.

  18. Scof says:

    Today the VOA reports on Resolution 17-25, “under which Ugandan troops would supply the core of the East African protection force.

    The White House said President Bush telephoned Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni Tuesday to discuss Horn-of-Africa tensions and to thank him for supporting the envisaged mission.

    The resolution eased the U.N. arms embargo against Somalia to permit introduction of the force, but was otherwise designed to discourage intervention by Ethiopia and by its regional rival Eritrea, which has given aid to the Islamic Courts.”

    This would seem to be an ideal solution, but given their fascist tendencies and threat of Jihad against any, even AU troops, it seems the fundamentalists won’t go quietly, and that that can’t be helped even though amnesty has been offered by the TG.

  19. SNi says:

    You said “Ethiopia is historically Christian…” Is that more like “Christian ruled?” According to the CIA World Factbook the population of Ethiopia is “Muslim 45%-50%, Ethiopian Orthodox 35%-40%, animist 12%, other 3%-8%” So, the most charitable supposition might be that Ethiopia is intervening to prevent ‘fundamentalist creep’ into its territory. However it remains to be seen if the government’s actions have the intended effect or backfire on them…
    P.S. The uncharitable view would be that Ethiopia is simply continuing its history of messing with its neighbours…

  20. staypuftman says:

    Curzon does have a point here, mainly because of the magnitude of life that could be lost. Does the world need another giant regional war in Africa? What did that mess in the Congo accomplish? Knocked out millions of people but little else. It’s not like anybody in the developed world has bent over backwards to get Somalia heading the right direction before now. Somebody has to establish law there. If it’s not the UIC, who else is it going to be?

  21. Moloch says:

    Very interesting post indeed, with some great responses.
    While it’s increasingly a given that failed states are very attractive bases for terrorism, the question is which groups the UIC are likely to harbour. Al Quaeda are a hollow threat nowadays – the Bin Laden network is fractured with most of its key centres of power levelled and a lot of its leadership in deep hiding. The biggest danger, as John Robb would remind us, is the open source movements who pick up the imagery and methods of the Bin Laden network.
    On the question of the UIC’s links, about the only people they seem to have shown any material and actual connections with, to my knowledge, is the Hizb’allah/Iran bloc (not got the link for it, but there was a reuters article with the title U.N. report links Somali Islamists, foreign militants on Mon Nov 13, 2006). Who are, as we should all know, not just distinct from the Bin Laden network and affiliates, but often in direct opposition.
    I suppose, though I’ve not checked on this, the UIC are pretty pally with the Sudanese regime as well, right?

    BTW – Fascist tendencies of the UIC? Nationalist, yes, but I don’t think fascist is a very helpful term her – it very rarely is. Until I see a bit of corporatism to go with their religious-ethno-radical-conservativsm, I’d hold of using that sort of languge. They sound like an agressive and contemptible movement, however.

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