Somalia: Afghanistan redux?

Talk about deja vu all over again. The US secretly backs a loose alliance of lawless warlords it had previously fought because they are now opposing an ultra-fundamentalist cleric-led militia with supposed links to al-Qaeda. The clerical militia has just taken the capital and seems set to bring the whole country under its control. It wins support by pledging to bring stability to a war-weary populace long brutalized by the warlords. But Washinghton fears a new regional beachhead for Islamic terrorism. The warlords get hip to this angle, and start spouting "anti-terrorist" rhetoric. Sound familiar? Only this time instead of the Northern Alliance it's the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism, and instead of the Taliban it's the Islamic Courts Union. After a four-month siege of Mogadishu, claiming hundreds of lives, the Islamic Courts Union took the capital city June 5. The next to fall may be Baidoa, the inland city where Somalia's recently-assembled (and still largely fictional) official government is based. (Newsday, June 6)

The New York Times was quick on the obvious analogy with June 7 editorial, "Somalia Goes Down the Afghan Road." But it noted this critical difference:

The Bush administration wasn't exactly caught looking the other way. But with more than 130,000 U.S. troops tied down in Iraq and some 20,000 more in Afghanistan, and with America's reputation in the Islamic world driven to an all-time low, Washington's ability to respond effectively to a very real danger was severely compromised.

It also offered this warning:

Washington needs to develop more agile responses of its own. It especially has to avoid getting drawn into quagmires that force it to fight on the terrorists' terms and timetable.

Easier said than done, eh?

The Times also displayed on the front page June 8 a report detailing CIA aid to the warlord allaince. The CIA effort, run from the agency's station in Nairobi, channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past year to (supposedly) "secular" warlords inside Somalia with the apparent aim of capturing or killing a handful of suspected members of al-Qaida believed to be hiding there, the Times cited anonymous officials as saying.

The decision to use warlords as proxies was born in part from fears of committing large numbers of US troops to Somalia, a country that the United States hastily left in 1994 after attempts to capture the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid and his aides ended in disaster, with the deaths of 18 US soldiers.

Shortly after an attack on a hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, and the failed attempt to shoot down a plane bound for Israel that took off from the Mombasa airport (both in November 2002), the US began reaching out to the Somali clan-based militia in the hopes that local forces might provide intelligence about suspected members, the report said.

Almost universally overlooked in news reports is that not all of what the world recognizes as the state of "Somalia" is war-torn. The strife is in the south, the former Italian colony. The north, the former British colony along the Red Sea coast, is a de facto independent state known as Somaliland, and has acheived comparative stability and good government despite being unrecognized by the "international community." Somaliland declared its independence after the long dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed in 1991, and held a referendum for independence ten years later. In a wonderful political irony, today (former Italian) Somalia has an internationally-recognized government on paper but no effective government on the ground, while Somaliland has a real government with territorial control but no international recognition. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) responded to the fall of Mogadishu by issuing a statement June 8 calling for the international community to "restart from Somaliland":

UNPO strongly urges the international community to recognize the notable progress made in Somaliland within its de facto borders, to consider support for the democratic wish of the people of Somaliland as manifested in the 2001 referendum, and moreover see Somaliland as a starting point for a stabilization, and ultimately democratization, process for the larger region... "The international community cannot afford to continue its failed policy in the Horn of Africa, but needs to critically reconsider its position, starting with Somaliland," asserts Marino Busdachin, UNPO General Secretary, emphasising the pressing need to save democracy in Somaliland from the combined assault of fundamentalist islamists and Somali warlords.

Somaliland may not have an Olympic team, but it does have a website. Unfortunately, a March 24 press release posted to the site noted armed incursions into Somaliland by the militia of another breakaway region, Puntland, situated at the very tip of the Horn of Africa. Unlike Somaliland, Puntland has not formally declared indpendence, but has likewise long been an effective self-governing autonomous zone within Somalia. The press release charges that that villagers were killed and kidnapped in the incursion, which was repulsed by local village militia. It also charges that foreign interests—principally oil companies—are arming the Puntland militia and grooming it as a proxy force:

We believe that the aim of the recent aggression from the Puntland region of Somalia against the Republic of Somaliland is to chase away the inhabitants of the district of Eastern Sanaag in order to allow foreign companies to illegally prospect for oil deep inside the territory of the Republic of Somaliland. We are also convinced that these repeated provocations are designed to plunge our peaceful country into the kind of turmoil that the Republic of Somalia has been known for during the past fifteen years.

The international community should be informed that the massive amounts of funds that are poured into the pockets of warlords by companies who are interested in oil, as well as the funds that are made available by the international community, supposedly to broker peace between these warlords, only serve to provide them with the funds that allows them to import heavy arms into the Horn of Africa in blatant disregard of the Security Council Arms Embargo that is imposed against the Republic of Somalia.

Garowe Online, a news service based in the Puntland capital of Garowe, reported May 30 that authorities in Puntland had arrested "peace activist" Abdi Mohamed Farah, Puntland representative of a Mogadishu-based organization known by its Somali acronym INXA (Iskuxirka Nabada iyo Xuquuqda Aadanaha). Farah was detained after police discovered that he was organizing a "massive anti-war demonstration in Bossaso." The protest was apparently against the then-escalating war for Mogadishu, but Puntland police feared the demonstration had ulterior "political" motives—perhaps a reference to the incursions against Somaliland. The report noted: "Under the Puntland Charter, citizens of the State have the right to hold public and peaceful demonstrations."

See our last post on Somalia.

Sheikh Sherif speaks

An interview with the leader of the Islamic Courts Union from Awdalnews Network (ANN), a news service based in the Republic of Somaliland.

MOGADISHU, 9 June 2006—Sheikh Sherif Sheikh Ahmed, Chairman of the Somali Islamic Courts Union, today welcomed a dialogue with the United States, describing the Bush Administration's willingness to talk to them as Washington's "first step towards the right direction."

"We know that a lot of wrong information has been given to the U.S. They have been fed with lies and Somalia has been portrayed to them as a threat, which is baseless," he said.

In an exclusive telephone interview with Bashir Goth of Awdalnews Network on 9th June 2006, Sheikh Sherif also explained that what happened in Mogadishu was a popular uprising and not an Islamic Courts' conquest of the capital, noting that all fighters on the Islamic Courts side were natives of Mogadishu and there were rarely any other Somalis among their ranks let alone foreign elements.

He denied having called for the establishment of an Islamic State in Somalia and said that the Islamic Courts had no intention of forcing women to adhere to strict Islamic dress code.

"People are Muslims but no one forces them to do anything. It is a personal obligation and the per