Two American air strikes in the Horn of African state of Somalia brought back memories of the ill fated Black Hawk Down incident of 1993, immortalized in the movie of the same name. This time however American forces appear better prepared to avoid the ignominy faced more than a decade ago.
The American strikes came after Somalia saw full fledged civil war erupting during December as Ethiopian forces combined with government troops prevented Islamic Courts from capturing the capital Baidoa and then extended the hold over the entire country. The United States supported Ethiopian moves as troops advanced towards Mogadishu to unseat the provisional alternate government established by the Islamic Courts Council. The Ethiopians used tanks as well as aircraft to overcome resistance. The United States was forced into action with reports of the Al Qaeda having made inroads in Mogadishu which had fallen into the hands of the Islamic Courts Council in June.
Somalia has been a state only as a geographical reference as there is no semblance of a functional apparatus in the country over the past two decades or more. The latest outbreak of fighting has been between the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) or the Somalia Islamic Courts Council which had virtually taken over the entire country less the region of Baidoa where the transitional government supported by the United Nations functioned. The ICU had been supported by a large number of foreign Islamic fighters and weapons were being supplied from Yemen across the Red Sea. The region was becoming a haven for the Al Qaeda forcing neighboring Ethiopia to intervene after its rival in the region; Eritrea was reported to be fighting on behalf of the Islamists.
Somalia is a country which was at the mercy of the warlords till the Islamic Courts Union (ISC) took control of Mogadishu and other key locations six months ago. However their writ did not run across the country. The Islamic Courts offered an alternate to war lordism as well as the Westphalian state. They supplanted these themes with control by political Islam which appeared a good alternative to the Somalis who were sick of the continued state of anarchy in the country. The people were soon disillusioned by the Islamic Courts as the country became a refuge for Islamic terrorists of all hues.
As per Shamso Omar, a Somali analyst, the ISC comprises of three groups. The first group led by Sheikh Sheriff is moderate but was undermined by the other two groups led by Sheikh Aweys and an Eritrean cluster. Sheikh Aweys leads the Al Itihad group which follows the Qutubi sub sect of the Salafist ideology. These proponents see Islam under a siege and seek to destroy its opponents. Their aim was to adopt Islamist tenets of governance such as trading based on the Khat system, banning cinema and fostering a Taliban like ideology. They portray the purpose of the state as combating non jihad elements. The third group comprises of Pan Islamists supported by Eritrea. The key aim of this group is to reduce Ethiopian influence in the region. The main impact of ISC has been increased Islamic influence in Somalia. The Islamic Courts attempted to win over the youth through their appeal to bring order into a society which prefers clan over other forms of loyalty. Another layer in the struggle is the battle between the Hawiye clan of Southern Somalia, with the Darod tribe led by the President of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) Abidallhi Yusuf who has the support of Ethiopia.
The country has been having incessant conflict since the early 1990’s and the situation is extremely complex with multiple levels of power aspirations, the war lords, Islamic Courts and government forces backed by the United Nations. A negotiated settlement is possible only if these multiple parties are brought together on a common platform. The US has been involved in a number of attempts to bring peace to Somalia. During the year it had attempted to bring together secular warlords to defeat the Islamic Courts, a move which did not succeed.
The Al Qaeda was hoping to open a third front against the Western forces after engaging them in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past few years. Osama Bin Laden in a taped interview had indicated in June that Somalia should form another front in the Jihad. The complexity is underlined by the fact that both Eritrea and Ethiopia are hostile neighbors with a Christian majority and substantial Muslim population. The Al Qaeda has been quick to give the fratricidal conflict in the region a religious color, though there has been a legacy of hostilities between the states dating back to many decades.
The Horn of Africa dominates the tri junction of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and is thus critical from the maritime point of view. Somalia is also said to have substantial deposits of Uranium at 6600 tons.
The World cannot ignore warfare in this critical region which is also significant from the point of view of maritime trade and oceanic security. Restoration of order under the United Nations aegis should thus assume high priority.