What Does Ethiopia’s Withdrawal Mean for Somalia’s Future?

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross
Middle East Times
February 5, 2009

Ethiopian efforts in Somalia began with an unexpected intervention in December 2006 that rapidly reversed many territorial gains made by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist group that was then on the brink of destroying Somalia’s U.N.-recognized transitional federal government (TFG). However, neither the Ethiopians nor the United States (which supported the invasion) were able to provide the country with badly needed stability. The beginning of the end came in early January, when trucks filled with Ethiopian soldiers began to roll out of Mogadishu. They almost immediately hit a roadside bomb.

The Ethiopians, who invaded Somalia largely because of concerns about ICU designs on their territory, had been forced to withdraw by a vigorous insurgency. As Ethiopian fighters have left, militants affiliated with the extremist Shabaab group have taken their place. Many analysts believe that Somalia now poses a greater terrorist threat than it did in 2006, prior to Ethiopia’s intervention.

The circumstances of Ethiopia’s withdrawal can only be described as a defeat. Anti-Ethiopian insurgent forces split into two primary groups during the course of the fighting. The Alliance for Re-liberation of Somalia (ARS) is frequently described as a “moderate Islamist” faction by the international press, and much pressure was brought to bear on the TFG to constructively engage with ARS, including by the U.S. State Department. (Some observers believe that labeling the ARS “moderate” is inaccurate.) The insurgent faction that now lays claim to a large part of Somalia, Shabaab, is regarded as extremist by virtually all outside observers.

A large number of Somali members of parliament fled their country as the Ethiopians left. The exiled lawmakers settled in Djibouti, where they promptly set about undertaking “reconciliation talks.” The representatives agreed to double the size of the parliament to include Islamist MPs affiliated with the ARS, and they selected ARS leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as their new president following Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed’s December resignation.

President Ahmed has said, “I think we can improve the situation in Somalia and establish genuine peace and reconciliation in my country.” But it’s difficult to see how this can be accomplished.

“Where will this parliament go?” asks Abdiweli Ali, an associate professor of economics at Niagara University and a former adviser to the TFG. “The seat of government has already been captured by Shabaab.”

Indeed, Shabaab’s area of effective control stretches from Baidoa in south-central Somalia and Kismayo in the far south all the way to the capital of Mogadishu. There are two major concerns about the group’s advances.

The first concern is humanitarian. Shabaab has already begun to implement its strict version of Sharia in areas that it controls. At a rally held Jan. 27 in Baidoa, Shabaab’s Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Mansoor declared that his group would “rule with justice, and the almighty Allah’s Sharia law.” He continued: “We are informing Somalis we will not accept any man-made constitution…. We shall fight with anyone who opposes [Sharia].”

On Jan. 28, a man convicted of stealing fishing nets had his hand amputated in Shabaab-controlled Kismayo. Shabaab executed a politician for “apostasy” in the same city in mid-January due to his alleged cooperation with Ethiopian forces, and a 12-year-old girl was stoned to death there in November for adultery. (Her aunt claimed that she was raped.)

Kismayo residents have expressed their violent displeasure with some of Shabaab’s new rules, rioting after the Islamist group transformed a soccer stadium into a market. “We are here to defend our stadium and fight against anyone who wants to prevent us from playing soccer,” one enthusiastic rioter told the African Press Agency.

Bill Roggio, a civilian military affairs analyst who has followed the situation in Somalia closely for the Long War Journal, suggests that on the whole Shabaab may be implementing Sharia more slowly than the ICU did during its rise in 2006. “I think they’re doing it more subtly this time,” he says. “They’ve learned that you can’t rush into Sharia.”

It is also worth noting that Somalia has been mired in anarchy since the early 1990s, so many Somalis may find even Shabaab’s harsh version of Sharia preferable to lawlessness. This is similar to the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s: as Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote in his best-selling book “Taliban”, the Taliban managed to win over Afghanistan’s “unruly Pashtun south because the exhausted, war-weary population saw them as saviors and peacemakers.”

Beyond humanitarian concerns, there are worries about Shabaab’s connection to transnational terrorism. Shabaab and al-Qaida in East Africa have interlocking leadership at top levels. Moreover, Roggio notes Shabaab’s terrorist training camps. “We know that Shabaab has been running camps,” he says. “We now have another terrorist sanctuary, this time in East Africa.”

One likely sign that training camps are reopening in Somalia is the disappearance of young Somali men in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in the United States and elsewhere (a phenomenon that has recently been heavily reported in the American media, including in Newsweek). There are reports of young Somali men going missing in Canada, Europe, Australia, and Saudi Arabia; U.S. intelligence sources believe that they are returning to Somalia, where they receive military training from Shabaab.

How can this situation be addressed? J. Peter Pham, the director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University (and my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies), has a couple of suggestions for American policymakers. “There’s clearly an obsession with Somaliland by some Shabaab leaders,” he says, fingering Ahmed Abdi Godane and Ibrahim Haji Jama. “We need to find a way to enforce security in Somaliland, which will have elections in the next few months.”

Second, Pham argues that policymakers need to recognize the linkages between Islamist militants and Somali piracy. He contends that there are three levels of connections. First, Somali pirates have paid the militants in order to operate in their ports. Second, militants have needed someone to ferry in arms and trainers for them. This began with the militants as the pirates’ paying passengers; later they paid in kind, allowing the pirates to participate in their weapons training courses. Third, now that Shabaab controls considerable territory, it receives payments directly from pirates in exchange for allowing them to do business. Pham suggests that Somalia’s pirates may be particularly vulnerable to embargoes targeting their boat fuel.

For the foreseeable future, the situation in Somalia is likely to grow worse rather than better. Past efforts by the United States and other countries have come up short. It remains to be seen if the Barack Obama administration can formulate a better Somalia policy than that of its predecessor.