How the West ended Somalia’s brief flirtation with stabilityBy Matthew Carr
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One of the forgotten battlegrounds of George Bush's 'war on terror' jumped sharply into focus yesterday, with the announcement that a pre-dawn US missile strike had killed the Islamist militia leader Aden Hashi Ayro and at least 10 other people in the town of Dusamareb in Somalia.
The Americans claim Ayro was a key al-Qaeda figure in East Africa. There is no way of objectively assessing these claims, but his assassination is certain to fuel the ongoing conflict in a country that Oxfam recently described as Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.
To much of the Western public, violent mayhem has long been synonymous with the failed state depicted in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. But the violence that is currently ripping Somalia apart is a direct consequence of the Bush administration's reckless military adventurism and the Manichean fantasy world of the 21st century's terror wars.
The present conflict can be traced to Christmas Day 2006, when the Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi invaded Somalia in order to topple a grassroots Islamic movement, the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC).
During their six-month ascendancy in the south of the country, the Islamic Courts earned themselves some kudos amongst the war-weary Somali population, who were prepared to tolerate their literalist interpretation of Sharia in exchange for the freedom to walk the streets without being robbed, shot or raped by warlord militias.
It was a period in which many analysts, such as John Prendergast, a former Clinton official, saw 'the beginnings of governance' after nearly two decades of relentless civil war.
However, the xenophobic Zenawi regime did not regard the triumphant Islamists in Somalia with any enthusiasm. Nor did the Bush administration, which saw the Islamic Courts as an incipient Taliban and accused its leaders of sheltering "half a dozen or less" al-Qaeda leaders and an unknown number of lesser operatives.
The UIC denied these allegations and even made some conciliatory overtures to the West, but these efforts were not reciprocated. Instead the Bush administration gave what one US official called a 'yellow-green light' to an invasion that the Zenawi regime presented as its own 'war on terror'.
From its bases in Kenya and Djibouti, the Pentagon's newly-created Africa Command also provided military support for the invasion, in the form of special forces and helicopters. In January 2007 US helicopter gunships carried out 'rinse and repeat' attacks on fleeing refugees near the Kenyan border, who were believed to include al-Qaeda terrorists.
The main casualties in these attacks appear to have been nomads and their livestock, though few people were counting. But the Islamists appeared to have been routed and Ethiopia promptly set about establishing a puppet government, headed by the warlord Abdullahi Yusuf. Since then, resistance to Ethiopian occupation has grown exponentially and Somalia has sunk ever deeper into a vortex of violence. More than one million people have been displaced, thousands have been killed and the country's fragile food supply once more placed in jeopardy.
Was all this done in order to eliminate "half a dozen or less" al-Qaeda operatives who may never have been in the country in the first place? Did the US hope to gain access to Somalia's rich oil fields? Or was the Bush administration so blinded by its association between 'Islamism' and 'terror' that it chose to shoot first and ask questions later?
We cannot know what the Islamic Courts might have become had the US engaged them diplomatically or offered aid instead of rinse and repeat free fire zones. But the consequences could hardly have been much worse than they are now.
In its bloody attempt to rescue Somalia from 'fundamentalism' the US and its Ethiopian proxy have paved the way for the violent political fragmentation in which al-Qaeda thrives. While Western politicians dream of further humanitarian interventions elsewhere, it is salutary to pause and reflect on the catastrophe inflicted on yet another country that had to be destroyed before it could be saved.