Target Somalia: A Hidden U.S. Agenda?

After its military success in Afghanistan, there is growing speculation that America is gunning next for Somalia. The speculation has been fueled by numerous high-ranking government officials, most recently by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who on Jan. 7 told the New York Times that Somalia "fitted the bill of a lawless state that draws terrorists like a magnet."

The Western media and public have largely bought the U.S. line that this is a widening of the "war on terror" against a country with alleged links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. However, deeper investigation points to a possible ulterior motive: domination of East Africa.

Currently, Sudan and Somalia are the only regional countries not allied to the U.S., whose friendly relations with Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Eritrea seem secure, despite the latter two's recent wars. Since U.S. missile strikes on Sudan five years ago (which resulted in the ouster of bin Laden), and especially since Sept. 11, Africa's largest state has been keen to avoid potential confrontation with the world's lone superpower, attempting to shed its image as a "sponsor of terrorism" and thus stem U.S. support for southern rebels.

This leaves Somalia to contend with former allies until civil war broke out in 1991, the defining moment in relations between the two countries in the last decade was the 1993 killing of 18 American marines in the capital Mogadishu, and the subsequent evacuation of U.S. forces from Somalia. This was portrayed as Somali rejection of a peacekeeping mission, but in fact the deaths were a direct result of a seventh botched attempt to capture the warlord Mohammed Aideed, in which hundreds of Somalis died.

Since then, the U.S. has accused this impoverished Arab state of harboring terrorists. "Somalia has been a place that has harbored al-Qaeda and, to my knowledge, still is," said US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The problem is, his "knowledge" is based on information from Ethiopia, the U.S. embassy in Kenya, and Somali rebels.

"Ethiopia has long been Somalia's main rival in the region and its foreign policy is always aimed at keeping Somalia weak and divided," wrote Richard Dowden, a writer on African affairs, in the December 13 edition of the British newspaper The Guardian.

Indeed, Ethiopia, which has been urging the U.S. to extend the "war on terror" to Somalia since Sept. 11, invaded its eastern neighbor in 1996 (capturing and killing hundreds) and 1999, has done so again in the last few months, and actively supports anti-government rebels such as the Rahanwein Resistance Army.

In August 2000, "a long drawn out peace conference ended in the nearest thing that Somalis have ever had to a broad-based national government," said Dowden. "Ethiopia immediately started supporting its rivals, powerful warlords like Hussein Aideed, son of Mohammed Aideed, and Mohammed Hersi Morgan, a war criminal who destroyed Hargeisa city 10 years ago."

James Astill, the Guardian's East Africa correspondent, adds: "Ethiopia is actively trying to destabilize its ruined neighbor out of a long-standing, partly justified, fear of the effect a united Somalia would have on its own 3,000,000 ethnic Somalis." In sum, he says that "to strike Somalia on Ethiopia's advice would be like invading Pakistan on a tip-off from India."

Dowden describes this as "a classic case of U.S. allies telling Washington that their local enemies are terrorists ... and, it seems, the Americans are willing to listen."

Furthermore, Astill says that "no (U.S.) embassy staff have visited Somalia or admit to having learned anything about terrorism since the attacks" of Sept. 11. The only U.S. presence in Somalia since its peacekeeping operation ended seven years ago came Dec. 9, 2001 in the form of military personnel, accompanied of course by high-ranking Ethiopian officials.

The only impartial party on the ground, the United Nations, says there is no terrorist activity in Somalia, as has the country's government. "To the best of our knowledge there are no camps of any terrorist groups in Somalia, and no links with al-Qaeda," said President Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, a vocal supporter of multiparty democracy. Some might doubt his sincerity, were it not for the fact that his government has invited the U.S. to carry out investigations.

Transport Minister Abdi Guled Mohamed unequivocally reiterated this willingness to help. "We have said since Sept. 11 that we want to help," he said. "If the Americans say there are terrorists in Somalia, they should tell us how they know this. If there are terrorists here, then we will put them in prison, put them where they belong. We will work with the Americans to fight terrorists."

However, this pledge of assistance has fallen on deaf ears. "It would be good if it was a bit happier to cooperate," said Hassan.

Which brings us back to the central question: How can the U.S. justify targeting Somalia with no concrete evidence and a seeming unwillingness to accept an official offer of assistance? The answer: with great dubiousness. Its "war on terror" seems increasingly like a cover for its re-entry into the Somali arena and domination of East Africa, its actions pointing more toward attempts at destabilizing Somalia's UN-sponsored government, which it does not recognize.

Besides liaising with the government's local and regional enemies, the U.S. is causing severe economic disruption to one of the world's poorest states by ordering the closing down of Barakaat, a flourishing telephone and banking system that handles between $300 million and $500 million a year in remittances from Somalis living abroad to sustain their families. The U.S. justified this move by claiming that Barakaat had been used by al-Qaeda. "Do you close down a telephone company because a criminal used it to make a call?" asked Dowden.

Washington has also declared the Somali Islamic movement al-Itihaad a terrorist organisztion. Al-Itihaad emerged in 1991 as one of numerous warring militias, and its aim was the establishment of an Islamic state. However, its military operations ended with its defeat in 1997 by invading Ethiopian troops. Since then, it has become Somalia's leading provider of education, judicial, health and welfare services, all scarce and badly needed in a country experiencing an extensive drought in the south and half a million people reportedly facing severe food shortages there.

The Somali government and the UN deny that al-Itihaad undertakes terrorist operations or has any links with al-Qaeda. "We have seen no connections between al-Itihaad and al-Qaeda," said Randolph Kent, the UN's resident coordinator for Somalia. "Nor for that matter have we seen any evidence of the terrorist activity which is exciting the rest of the world."

Making economic and political life in Somalia difficult could well signal a U.S. effort to foment social unrest and the eventual toppling of the government, in favor of an administration more amenable to Ethiopian interests and, in turn, those of Washington. Indeed, Walter Kansteiner, the U.S. under-secretary of state for Africa, claims ominously that some members of the Somali government "could well be al-Itihaad people." Furthermore, warlords pulled out of peace talks in Nairobi on Dec. 14, "apparently in the expectation of U.S. support," says Astill.

Such measures may avail the U.S. of the need to take direct military action, or soften its enemy in the event of such action. The purposes behind them can be seen as akin to the vice-like sanctions regime imposed on Iraq, although whether they will succeed where they have failed against Saddam Hussein is questionable. The plan could just as well backfire, compounding public sentiment in a country deeply resentful of past U.S. involvement and suspicious of its intentions.

But U.S. resolve is likely being driven by its success in Afghanistan and the repercussions beyond its borders. After all, the U.S. found and courted enthusiasm for its war in Afghanistan among the Central Asian states, in particular neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which support anti-Taliban Afghan forces and are fighting their own Islamic insurgents. Winning over a traditional Russian sphere of influence has not only been a U.S. aim since at least the start of the Cold War, but will also strengthen its hand where Caspian oil supply is concerned, giving it a decisive edge in its "pipeline war" against Russia and Iran.

Thus when one sees the regional gains made by the U.S. in its wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not difficult to draw parallels to Somalia, and to understand the deep-rooted fear and suspicion in the Arab and Muslim worlds that behind the "war on terror" is a strategy of attaining regional dominance and compliant allies regardless of local and humanitarian consequences.

Sharif Nashashibi is the Chairman of Arab Media Watch (www.arabmediawatch.com) and can be reached at sharif_n@hotmail.com. He also writes for YellowTimes.org, where a version of this article first appeared.

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