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The 843-Day War

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

It’s Time to Cut and Run!

In mid-July 2006, Zenawi sent his troops to Somalia to prop up the so-called transitional government in Baidoa. By late December, 2006 his tanks rolled into Mogadishu to dislodge the “government” of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and crush the “Talibanic” Al Shabaab. Zenawi justified his invasion as an act of pre-emptive self-defense: “Ethiopian defense forces were forced to enter into war to protect the sovereignty of the nation. We are not trying to set up a government for Somalia, nor do we have an intention to meddle in Somalia’s internal affairs. We have only been forced by the circumstances.” But everyone knows the invasion was about empowering one faction of the warlords against the rest. By mid-October, 2008, Zenawi said he has had enough. It is time to cut and run! He told his parliament: “If the Somali political scenario improves and its stakeholders assure us of their commitment, we will remain to help them out. Otherwise we will leave as no other option will be available.” Last week, it was announced that following a ceasefire agreement that takes effect on November 5, Zenawi will begin a “phased withdrawal” of his troops from Somalia. Accordingly, by November 21, Zenawi’s soldiers will be withdrawn from the capital Mogadishu and Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border. The second phase is expected to take place in 120 days. By then African Union peacekeepers, militiamen loyal to the transitional Somali government and certain elements of the opposition Alliance for the Re-Liberation (ARS) will form a 10,000-man police force to maintain law and order.

A humbled Zenawi struck a conciliatory tone with his erstwhile jihadists enemies as he prepared to pull out: “If the people of Somalia have a government, even one not positively inclined to Ethiopia, it would be better than the current situation. Having a stable government in place in Somalia is in our national interests.” (In December, 2006, Somalia had a “stable” government which enjoyed popular support after securing Mogadishu from competing warlords and thugs). On October 28, Zenawi’s foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin blamed everybody but his own regime for everything that went wrong in Somalia after the invasion: “Somalia’s problems are not security, but political [and the transitional government] failed to crate any institutions of governance to speak of. The continuing feud within the leadership had contributed to the paralysis of the TFG. Of course no one could assume that, speaking now on behalf of my country, Ethiopia will continue to keep its troops in Somalia. In all honesty, the international community can hardly be proud of its record in Somalia. But this is no excuse for the kind of egregious lack of responsible behaviour that we continue to witness on the part of all those in positions of authority in Somalia.”

But the ceasefire was flatly rejected by the “hardliners” including Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, Al Shabaab leaders and other insurgent and clan leaders. Mukhtar Robow, an Al Shabaab spokesman defiantly declared: “We have already rejected the (peace) conference and its agreements. We are now saying again that we will not accept them. We will continue fighting against the enemies of Allah. I say Meles Zenawi must admit defeat, because he found people who hide his defeat after his power was severely weakened. We will continue attacks on Ethiopian and African Union forces.” On October 29, a coordinated attack by unidentified suicide bombers struck a United Nations compound and other targets in northern Somalia killing at least 22 people. Despite the announced ceasefire, there are continued reports of daily mortar attacks and gun battles with insurgent elements in the streets. According to one report, Zenawi now has less than 2500 soldiers left inside Somalia, down from an estimated 15,000-18,000 in the first year of the invasion. Secret plans are said to be in place to evacuate officials of the transitional government to Kenya once the troops are withdrwan.

The Logic of the Somali Invasion

Somalia has been without any central government since the downfall of President Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Clan warfare, warlords, armed thugs and bandits have made Somalia the archetypal “failed state”. The marauding and murderous warlords have left tens of thousands of innocent victims in their wake. Zenawi’s casus belli (justification for invasion and war) was framed against this backdrop of clan anarchy and the overshadowing specter of a Somali Talibanic-Islamist-Jihadist “bogeyman” rampaging throughout the Horn of Africa. The invasion was anchored in an unarticulated doctrine of containment of terrorism in the Horn where Zenawi expected to play a pivotal role in eliminating or severely restrict the sphere of influence of Al Queida and other homegrown terrorists in Somalia and the region. To ensure the unflinching support of the terrorism-obsessed Bush administration, Zenawi wanted to be seen as a star player in the “second front” on the war on global terrorism.

Based on a content analysis of Zenawi’s public statements, one can discern a pretty slick set of fabricated arguments for the invasion of Somalia and regional hegemonism based on systematic demonization of Somali Islamists as die-hard terrorists and jihadists. Here are the elements of the casus belli: 1) Under the rule of the ICU and influence of the Al Shabaab, Somalia is in imminent danger of being transformed into a Taliban-style Islamic fundamentalist state. 2) The Taliban-style Islamic state in Somalia is sworn to provide a haven and training grounds for Al Qaeda and other Islamic terrorists and militants globally, and militarily threaten Ethiopia and other countries in the region. 3) The Somali Islamic state, unless opposed, will be in a strong position to support and expand Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism among Ethiopian Muslims and other Muslims in the region; and for this purpose the Islamic state will support other internal armed opposition anti-regime groups as proxies to destabilize Ethiopia and the region. 4) The Islamic Somali state is revanchist (expansionist) in its ideology and will aggressively try to combine the Islamic populations in the Ogaden, Djbouti and Eritrea in an effort to create a greater Islamic state or sphere of influence. 5) Unless militarily challenged by Ethiopia, the Islamists in Somalia will take control of the southern flank of the Red Sea (Gulf of Aden) and the coastal areas of the Indian Ocean providing a beachhead for Islamic terrorists (may be pirates). 6) Without the active support and participation of the Zenawi regime, U.S. anti- terrorism strategy in the Horn, and possibly even in the southwestern Arabian Peninsula, is doomed to failure. 7) Ergo, only Zenawi can save the Horn from the plague of global terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism and regional instability.

Winners and Losers: A Ceasefire is Not a Substitute for Victory!

Governments who believe in war as an instrument of foreign policy understand that war is about victory over the enemy and winning. Invading a country and waging war on it is not a picnic. Fighting a war to victory requires great sacrifices in human lives and resources. This holds true even in a limited war (where the objects of the war are well defined and military confrontation does not require maximum military efforts). It has been said that the invasion of Somalia is not about “trying to set up a government for Somalia” or “to meddle in Somalia’s internal affairs.” The limited objective of the war, we were told, is to neutralize and eliminate the “jihadists”. Thus, war against “jihadists” means vanquishing them and bringing them to their knees. Offering them a ceasefire is not victory. Settling with anyone willing to sign the instrument of a ceasefire to save face while cutting and running is not victory. Retreating under the sustained onslaught of the “enemy” is not victory. As General Douglas MacArthur said, “In war, there is no substitute for victory. War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision.”

Why is there no “victory” in Somalia? There are military and political reasons why “victory” in Somalia is impossible. Militarily, there are three reasons why Zenawi could not win the Somali war. First, to defeat the Somali “jihadists” and “Islamists” it was necessary to apply overwhelming force. That was accomplished in the initial stages of the invasion when Zenawi’s troops swiftly routed the ICU and Al Shabaab in a blitzkrieg using heavy armor and air support from U.S. AC-130 gunships stationed in Djbouti. After the initial onslaught and “victory”, Zenawi fell into “prolonged indecision”. The nature of the conflict changed as the “jihadists” began to fight guerilla-style against the occupation forces. Zenawi was forced to change from an offensive action to waging a defensive war. But as General MacArthur cautioned, “You can’t win a war fighting it defensively.” The “jihadists” had scattered to the south and began regrouping to wage a war of liberation. Within months, Zenawi’s and the transitional government’s troops had lost the offensive and the insurgents were putting up effective resistance. Al Shabaab operatives were busy laying roadside bombs and attacking targets with small arms fire and mortars often hiding in neighborhoods and civilians areas. Zenawi’s troops would respond indiscriminately by bombarding residential areas killing hundreds and causing the flight of hundreds of thousands of people from Mogadishu and other areas. By the Fall of 2007, the “jihadist terrorists” had been transformed by the invasion. They had become insurgents dedicated to ridding Somalia from foreign invaders and occupiers. Defending Somali sovereignty had become far more important to them than their own internal squabbles or allegiance to a particular political orientation, ideology or system.

Second, from the tactical perspective it appears Zenawi completely underestimated the insurgents and the Somali people and overestimated the military prowess of his troops. He really did not know the Somalis as much as he thought he knew them. He underestimated their resolve to fight a force that had invaded and occupied their country. His public statements reveal that he completely underestimated the bravery, strength, resilience, resolve and military experience of the Somalis and the nationalist political dynamic the invasion was bound to foster in the creation of an unyielding insurgent fighting force. Zenawi and possibly some of his generals foolishly and arrogantly believed that defeating the jihadists would be a cakewalk. It is possibly this infantile optimism about their own military prowess that led them to declare in January, 2006 that “we’ll be out of Somalia in a few weeks”. They just did not know their “enemy” or have a healthy respect for him.

Third, the secret of the Somali insurgency and its obvious victory over the invading forces was foretold long ago by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap in his book, How We Won the War, a narrative of how the North Vietnamese army and the Vietcong systematically countered the United States military and South Vietnamese troops until they swooped down from the north and captured Saigon in 1975. Giap said that “Any force that wishes to impose its will on other nations will certainly face failure.” Giap explained, “We had ingenuity and the determination to fight to the end. I appreciated the fact that they [U.S] had sophisticated weapon systems but I must say that it was the people who made the difference, not the weapons. And so they made mistakes. They did not know the limits of power. … No matter how powerful you are there are certain limits, and they did not understand it well. … We had the spirit that we would govern our own nation; we would rather sacrifice than be slaves.” The Somali insurgents could not be defeated because they had the “spirit” to govern themselves (even though they are having an extraordinarily difficult time doing it) and the “spirit” to resist aggression by any means necessary — hit and run attacks, ambushing unsuspecting patrols and convoys, using improvised explosive devices, mortar attacks and so on. In the end, the Somali insurgents understood Ho Chi Mihn’s famous statement, “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds you will lose and I will win.” They won!

The problems involved in bringing about a political solution to Somalia’s problems were vastly complicated by the presence of foreign troops and the military situation on the ground. Bringing order (let alone peace) to a country that has been stateless and racked by violence for seventeen years is daunting. They tried numerous peace conferences to bring the warring parties to the peace table. None of them worked out. Against this backdrop, in 2006 Zenawi rode into Mogadishu like a knight on a white horse seeking to “stabilize the internationally recognized transitional government” and drive out the terrorist. For nearly two years, he tried to impose a Pax Zenawi on them in the form of a negotiated power-sharing program. There were no takers. When a comprehensive political solution could not be achieved, he offered them a ceasefire, and put the blame on the transitional government for its internal weaknesses and the international community for failing to provide military muscle to backup his vision of a political solution for Somalia.

The political problems are not limited to post-invasion Somalia. They also focus on the reasons for invasion. Why did Zenawi invade Somalia and how did he go about making that decision? Was the invasion absolutely necessary? The incontrovertible evidence is that there was no public discussion of the legitimacy or necessity of the invasion and war in Somalia. Neither the common Ethiopian folks nor the political elites openly discussed and debated the wisdom or utility of the invasion and the war. There was no real debate in the “parliament”. A few opposition leaders who dared to speak made it clear that they were not convinced of the justness or necessity of the invasion. Privately, many influential opinion leaders acknowledged that they felt that the invasion was insane. They were afraid to speak out. It is also incontrovertible that Zenawi’s justifications for the invasion were fabricated. He exaggerated the threat of a jihadist aggression and the regional threat posed by Al Queida and intentionally demonized the Islamists as Al Quieda stooges. He played the Bush administration for its knee jerk reaction to the word “terrorism”. By invading Somalia, Zenawi also saw an opportunity to burnish his image internationally and put a damper on all of the congressional activity aimed at sanctioning him for dismal human rights record. He wanted to convince the Bush administration that even though the international human rights organizations were saying nasty things about him, he is actually a pretty nice guy. Most of all, he is really trustworthy and reliable. In the end, Zenawi painted himself into a corner. He could not win a war he started nor could he impose his vision of a peaceful Somali state. In his retreat he is unable to explain the enormous sacrifices in human lives and resources fighting an illegal war of aggression.

The Question of War Crimes

Now that there will be a “ceasefire” (effectively ending the occupation and the war), there are serous questions of war crimes against Zenawi’s troops, the forces loyal to the TFG and the insurgents. The tip of the war crimes iceberg is evident in a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) entitled, Shell Shocked: Civilians Under Siege in Mogadishu [1] HRW in its scathing report alleges that the insurgents would “launch mortar rounds within minutes, then melt back into the civilian population.” The “Ethiopian and TFG response to mortar attacks increasingly included the return firing of mortars and rockets in the direction of origin of insurgency fire.” Specific “neighborhoods like Casa Populare (KPP) in the south, Towfiq and Ali Kamin around the Stadium, all along Industrial Road, and the road from the Stadium to Villa Somalia were heavily shelled or repeatedly hit by Ethiopian BM-21 multiple-rocket launcher and mortar rounds.” The impact of the shelling on the civilian population was “devastating”. HRW concluded, “The appalling consequences of indiscriminate attacks, the deployment of forces in densely populated areas, and the failure of all warring parties generally to take steps to minimize civilian harm is reflected in the thousands of civilians who died or whose lives were shattered by the injuries they sustained or by the loss of family members. It is also reflected in the staggering numbers of people who fled Mogadishu and in the scale of the destruction of homes, hospitals, schools, mosques, and other infrastructure in Mogadishu.”

Somalia: Mission NOT Accomplished!

The time to get out of Somalia was in the Spring of 2007. It was much easier to declare victory after chasing the “jihadists” out of town. As military or legally enforceable agreements, ceasefires do not amount to much. Ceasefires are about stopping armed conflict or suspending hostile action until one side determines it could get an advantage by resuming military action. Ceasefires rarely lead to comprehensive settlements. All over Africa ceasefires are signed and broken before the ink on the paper is dry. In 1973 President Nixon used the Paris Accords ceasefire agreements as a graceful way to exit the war in Vietnam. That was his peace with honor strategy. Two years later, the North Vietnamese Army swooped down on Saigon and took over. The “jihadists”, “Islamists” or whatever you want to call them will now feel emboldened in their ability to drive out the invader. They have defiantly declared they will not honor the ceasefire. Ironically, thousands of Somalis have been killed and over 1 million have been displaced. Many Ethiopian lives have been lost and resources wasted. All for one grand prize: A Ceasefire!

Perhaps in a few months the tanks and the artillery pieces will fall silent. But that will not signal the arrival of peace in Somalia. As long as heavily-armed insurgent groups, clan leaders, warlords, militants, pirates and other warmongers run amok, peace will remain elusive in Somalia. Hopefully, the ceasefire will give pause to the opposing factions to look inward for a durable solution. Ultimately, whether there shall be war or peace in Somalia will be in the hands of the Somali people alone. Only they can choose their destiny. When the dust settles in Somalia, what will matter the most will not be the armies of the invaders and the defenders who signed or did not sign a ceasefire. To paraphrase the old saying, the only armies that matter will be the army of cripples, the army of mourners, the forgotten army of the innocent dead and the army of displaced persons and refugees. PEACE!


3 thoughts on “The 843-Day War

  1. Yes indeed, the Somalis have to take the destiny into their own hands. Nobody can pretend to care about their wellfare than themselves. The Weyanes may invade you and the Americans may bomb you including your camels, but no force can get you down unless you let that to happen by yourself.

  2. I cannot agree you more. You started and ended with truth, and the word of PEACE. And all the time you spend in this article is worth. From your writing, I can understand that you are a free man, a brave man and a wise man and a man of intellect. Peace and freedom to Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Horn of Africa, Africa and the rest of the world.

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