Somalia: Hints of Military Action Cause Puzzlement, Worry

23 December 2001

Washington, DC — Is Somalia likely to be targeted for U.S. military intervention in a "second phase" of the war against terror? The Bush administration isn't making any definitive statements but analysts knowledgeable about the complex political crosscurrents in the Horn of Africa are warning the administration to tread carefully. But will it listen?

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters Friday that the U.S. goal is to "make sure Somalia does not become a location where they [the terrorists] could operate, or a safe haven for terrorists. That is the way I would describe our policy, at this point. I don't really have a judgment as far as what may be going on there now."

The United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), the unified command responsible for U.S. security interests in 25 nations, including nations on the Horn of Africa, has been asked to come up with a military plan for Somalia. This is "routine" contingency planning, claims a source close to administration thinking. "No policy decision has been made yet."

"We have concerns about Somalia," Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Walter Kansteiner told journalists in Nairobi recently, "but basically the mood in D.C. is, 'We got to get smarter.'"

In fact, reconnaissance missions conducted by U.S. soldiers and CIA agents have now determined that Al Qaeda's presence in Somalia is relatively small and unsophisticated.

As a result, the Pentagon, which had been pressing administration officials on the need for military action in Somalia seems to be backing away from the idea of a major military intervention, say some sources.

Preparing for action?

Nonetheless, Tuesday, German Defence Minister, Rudolf Scharping, told reporters at NATO headquarters in Brussels, that the U.S. is likely to strike Somalia next. "It's not a question of 'if' but of 'how' and 'when'," he said.

At a Pentagon press conference Wednesday, however, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld emphatically rebuked as "wrong," the German minister's remarks. "He didn't mean to be, and he's probably sorry, but he was flat wrong."

Even the German government has distanced itself from Scharping's comments. Foreign Ministry spokesman, Andreas Michaelis, called the Minister's remarks, "very peculiar. There is no planning for Somalia, the Americans have said that quite clearly."

But when General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about Scharping's comment, his response suggested otherwise: "There are...countries that worry us because they actively support and harbor [terrorists]. It's one thing to have a cell in your country, it's another to actively support them."

In a somewhat awkwardly constructed explanation of what actions might be taken against Somalia, Myers seemed to say anything is possible. He continued: "Somalia is one potential country - there are others as well - where you might have diplomatic, law enforcement action or potentially military action; all the instruments of national power, not just one."

And indeed, few in Washington or in other Western capitals, rule out the likelihood that some sort of U.S. military action is afoot in Somalia. France, which has a military presence in Djibouti is discussing coordinated action with the U.S. government. Speaking on background, one French government source close to those discussions told, "The Horn of Africa region, particularly Somalia, is the subject of reflection, and it is obviously from Djibouti that we can proceed to put other operations in place."

As far as they know, say French sources confirming the German Foreign Ministry assessment, there is no definite military plan yet. There are "only verification operations, with helicopters hovering around and things like that, but no specific action plan," said one.

Who has the king's ear?

If latest intelligence says Al Qaeda does not have a major presence in Somalia, why has the Bush administration been so focused on that country?

Ethiopia has been "fairly pivotal" in providing "exaggerated" intelligence, "mainly channeled to the Department of Defense," says Dr. Ken Menkhaus, a specialist on Somalia and its Islamic movements, a past consultant to both the U.S. government and the United Nations.

When a nine-person U.S. government team scouted southwestern Somalia earlier this month, in addition to local warlords, Ethiopian military officers were present. That large nation has long felt threatened by ethnic Somali rebellion within its borders and the irredentist goals that Somali leaders have often articulated. There have been three wars between the two countries.

Ethiopia considers the Somalia Transitional National Government(TNG)led by President Abdiqassim Salat Hassan as little more than an Arab front, backing terrorism and aggression against Ethiopia. They have been urging the United States to act against it and have been supporting its opponents.

For a time it seemed that the Pentagon in particular was buying Ethiopia's arguments about Somalia's terrorist threat."Ethiopia's military tends to drive policy on Somalia," says Menkhaus.

But,he says, "At this point I'm less convinced there is going to be any significant intervention,". "Now it's a parlor game being played by the press: 'Where will the war on terror take place next?' Somalia makes the short list because of certain features."

Fertile ground

One "feature" the administration has repeatedly stressed is that Somalia's anarchy attracts terrorists. "It makes itself ripe for misuse by those who would take that chaos and thrive on the chaos," Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Washington Post.

"The possibility of terror cells being in Somalia is real," Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner told reporters in Pretoria at the end of a four-nation tour of Africa that also took him to Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

But Somalia is a "failed state" not a "rogue state", many analysts point out. "You don't have a government," says Ted Dagne of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) and a close observer of the region. "You don't have a state in any real way. You don't have a target to go after in Mogadishu. How do you justify using U.S. military and air power to fight terrorism there?"

"We have one or two extremist groups in the country but we can take care of them ourselves. We don't need US help with them," TNG President Abdiqassim said in an interview with a London-based Arabic newspaper last month. He believes the US$25m offered for the capture of Osama Bin Laden, and other reward money the U.S. is offering for the capture of other al-Qaeda leaders, guarantees they would be quickly turned over should they come to Somalia.

Internal power struggles

While few observers think that large-scale military action is likely, there is widespread belief that covert action, perhaps even including kidnapping and assassination, can't be ruled out; perhaps, too, the use of small special forces for focused, coordinated raids. U.S. ships in the Red Sea will coordinate with Kenya and Ethiopia.

The lack of clarity from the U.S. administration continues to make some observers uneasy. "I'm nervous; I'm definitely nervous," said one Congressional aide involved with the issue. "What you basically end up with is an alliance with the warlords."

Whose warlords are whose is an important part of the decision-making process. And again, Ethiopia figures prominently.

Ethiopia has created a dissident group - the Somali Reconciliation and Restoration Council (SRRC) - which opposes the fragile UN-created TNG government in Somalia. And though the TNG took over last year and is recognized by the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity, it still has not been recognized by the United States.

Both the TNG and the SRRC contain former warlords who, in the past, have bitterly fought each other for power and territory. Both accuse each other being "terrorist" in the hope of winning U.S. help in their campaigns against each other. The SRRC, along with Ethiopia's government, charge that the TNG has ties with Al-Itihaad Al-Islamiya, a Muslim organization that was one of 22 terrorist organizations listed by the Bush Administration earlier this month. SRRC Chairman and Mogadishu warlord, Hussein Mohamed Aidid, told reporters, Tuesday, his group has been "continuously consulting" with U.S., Kenyan and Ethiopian governments since September 11.

Although the administration considers Al-Itihaad a terrorist organization, many analysts disagree. "Al-Itihaad operates differently in different parts of Somalia," the CRS's Ted Dagne told last month. "We should be navigating this very carefully."

Al-Itihaad's energy is concentrated on their vision - fundamentalist but not necessarily terrorist - for fixing a shattered Somalia, says Ken Menkhaus. They "are most concerned with a domestic, not an international agenda," he told a recent Carnegie Institute symposium on terrorist organizations in Africa. Adds the CRS' Dagne: "They don't have a regional reach, let alone a global reach."

It is a measure of the complexity of the region that just two years ago Aidid was fighting Ethiopia. His father - who at one point was allied with the UN - fought U.S. troops in 1992-93 when thousands of American soldiers were sent to Somalia to help provide humanitarian relief. It was during this operation that the bloody body of a dead marine was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu after 18 U.S. soldiers were killed during a manhunt for Mohammed Farah Aidid, the father of the SRRC's Aidid.

The TNG denies any links to terrorist groups and made that case to Glenn Warren, a political officer at the U.S. embassy in Nairobi who arrived in Mogadishu, Tuesday. It was the first visit by a U.S. official to the Somali capital in seven years. "It's just a matter of continuing dialogue," said an embassy spokesperson. According to the TNG, Warren will also meet with warlords who have been opposed to the TNG, including Muse Sudi Yalahow, another of the powerful clan leaders who control sections of Mogadishu.

The TNG charges that the SRRC is waging a war of terror against the new government; that many in its leadership have terrorized Somalia for a decade. "We in Somalia, we know what terrorism is," the TNG's Abdiqassim told the New York Times last month. "We have been in terror for 10 years. We have destroyed our towns. We have killed each other. We have used all sorts of weapons against each other, except perhaps airplanes."

Again, as a measure of Somalia's complexity, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi was hoping to bring SRRC leaders and TNG leaders together in Kenya in the past week for talks on a unity government. But the SRRC has unresolved internal disagreement as to whether to participate. Aidid and Yalahow were not there, nor other important and powerful SRRC personalities like Hasan Muhammad Nur Shatigadud of the Rahanweyn Resistance Army (RRA), were not.

Two years ago Aidid's group and the RRA fought bitterly. The RRA, which controls significant territory in Southwestern Somalia, has offered troops and bases to the U.S. military.

There is a confusing sea of armies and leaders and shifting alliances that makes the outcome of any military action politically unpredictable. The port city of Kismayo, 500 km south of Mogadishu, for example, is controlled by the Juba Valley Alliance (JVA), a grouping of Marehan, Ogadeni and Habar Gedir clans.

Their control was gained in 1999 when they expelled the forces of General Sa'id Hirsi Morgan of the Somali Patriotic Front, now a part of the SRRC. Morgan is a member of the Majerten clan, the main clan in Puntland, which is now a self-declared autonomous region in the northeast. And just this summer, the executive committee of the RRA, also a part of the SRRC, split over whether it should support an attempt by General Morgan to attack and recapture Kismayo. And this argument was really hiding a leadership challenge to RRA head Hasan Muhammad Nur Shatigadud.

Meanwhile, in the northwest, with close links to Ethiopia, there is Somaliland, also a self-declared autonomous region. Washington is negotiating with the government there for use of the deepwater port at Berbera, built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

Somaliland's Washington representative, Saad N. Noor, told, any solutions will have to come from within Somalia. Given that the clans, "are all fighting each other," Noor puts forward his Somaliland as the best option for facilitating a government that can effectively address U.S. concerns. The ironic reason, Noor says, is because though they are Somali, they are independent of Somalia.

U.S. policy, says Noor, has to recognize "the facts on the ground."

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