This time it's revenge

The Economist, NAIROBI
Despite its previous unhappy experience, America decides to get involved once again in a civil war in the turbulent Horn of Africa
BELATEDLY, if inevitably, the fist of American military power has smashed back into Somalia. On January 7th and 8th, an AC-130 gunship of the Special Operations Command (flying out of the large American base in Djibouti) struck Islamist targets near the town of Afmadow in the bush of southern Somalia and again at Ras Kamboni, a peninsula on the border with Kenya (see map). Further air strikes were reported, some from attack helicopters, but the Americans denied it was they who were making them. The surviving Islamist fighters, now numbering in the hundreds, seem to be surrounded, squeezed between the Kenyan army to the south, the Ethiopians to the north and an American fleet offshore. A few may escape, others will surrender, and the rest will probably be killed within the week.
They have fought a disastrous campaign. Since attacking Ethiopian and Somali transitional-government positions outside Baidoa on December 19th, they have been relentlessly driven back, losing control of central Somalia, then the capital, Mogadishu, before abandoning the port of Kismayo. Even then, observers still overestimated their military clout, expecting them to slip away into the thickets and the salty mangrove swamps, to reappear a few months later as a ferocious guerrilla force.
Instead, their convoys have sunk into mud and sand, making them easy targets for the Americans and invading Ethiopians. The Islamists failed to anticipate either that the Kenyan army would move so quickly to shore up its border or that America would risk firing directly on them. The lesson has been a hard one. Without a Tora Bora hideaway to run to, as in Afghanistan, and lacking the support of the local population, even the most zealous jihadist force is liable to be wiped out.
Still, the American action raises uncomfortable questions. For a start, how many people died in the air raids and who exactly were they? Taken together, the attacks claimed dozens, possibly hundreds of lives. Sketchy reports, including one from a doctor working for the Islamists, suggest that women and children were among the dead. The Americans used the AC-130, a behemoth designed to shred large areas instantly, in the knowledge that the killing fields would be cleared before journalists and aid workers could reach them. The Americans said that their first overt action in Somalia since 1993 was limited to stopping “al-Qaeda terrorists” from escaping. But that label hardly describes the bulk of the Islamist fighters, many of whom are little more than boys.
Their crime was to have sheltered (or pretended to shelter) three al-Qaeda men wanted for their part in the 1998 bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that killed at least 235 people (nearly all of them local Africans) and for the attacks on Israeli tourists in Mombasa, Kenya's main port, in 2002. One of the three men, Fazul Abdullah Muhammad, who served as a leader of al-Qaeda in east Africa, was originally thought to have been killed in the air strikes. But the Americans later denied these claims.
There is no way of knowing for sure. The American armed forces have issued inaccurate reports of their air raids before. Given Mr Muhammad's shadowy existence, perhaps not even a body will suffice as proof. The whereabouts of Abu Taha al-Sudani, a Sudanese bombmaker said to be close to Osama bin Laden, and a third man, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, were not known. Several Islamist commanders, including the political leaders of the Islamic Courts, which ruled most of central and southern Somalia in the months before Ethiopia's onslaught, have fled the country, some before the fall of Mogadishu.
Somalia's transitional president, Abdullahi Yusuf, has praised the American action, but it is doubtful whether he speaks for most Somalis. There has been sharp criticism of the American air attacks in the Muslim and wider world; the new UN chief, Ban Ki-moon, was quick to give warning against the “possible escalation of hostilities that may result”.
The fear is that the air strikes will be a rallying call, as al-Qaeda hopes. After all, it was CIA backing for the hated warlords in Mogadishu to hunt down al-Qaeda people last summer that stirred support for the Islamists in the first place. The Islamists may be marked as cowards for recruiting boys to fight their war, then running away, or they may come to be seen as martyrs. Much depends on what comes next: America will need to pay more attention to detail and work out an approach not wholly framed by the war on terror.
The most urgent priority is to replace Ethiopian troops with an international peacekeeping force. Diplomatic efforts have failed to produce any troops yet. A battalion promised by Uganda may take a month to arrive. Troops from Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Tanzania and Rwanda may take even longer. Already, the European Union has cast doubt on the African Union's ability to run the operation.
Despite Mr Yusuf's quick support for American action, it is unclear how Somalis and Muslims elsewhere will respond in the coming months. Successive American governments of both hues have shunned Somalia since losing soldiers there in 1993. The quality of American intelligence has been poor, often reliant on the warlords who caused misery in Mogadishu. But the fervent anti-Americanism of most Somalis may in some ways reflect a sense of abandonment by the superpower as much as the usual grievances about its pro-Israeli policies and infidels in general.
They couldn't stay away for ever
In any event, the air raids have thrust America back to centre stage. While sharing military intelligence with Ethiopia, it has the ear of several ministers in the Somali transitional government, most of them warlords. Its decision to join the attack, some say to promote it, together with its crude characterisation of the Islamists as al-Qaeda fighters, has upset other members of the International Contact Group on Somalia, which includes the European Union and the two countries most closely involved, Britain and Italy. UN officials in Nairobi fear that America's involvement may further alienate Somalis from their transitional government.
But at least the Americans agree with the UN and the Europeans on one big matter: moderate Islamists should be included in a government of national unity. So far, however, Mr Yusuf has crisply rejected that idea. And even if his transitional government reaches out to these moderates, hideous problems will remain. In particular, rivalry between Somalia's many clans, which has been the country's bane since its inception half a century ago, will keep it unstable for a long time yet.

posted by Ethiounited Moderator at3:25 AM


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