With these developments, the Bush Administration, undeterred by the horrors and setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, has opened another battlefront in this volatile quarter of the Muslim world. As with Iraq, it casts this illegal war as a way to curtail terrorism, but its real goal appears to be to obtain a direct foothold in a highly strategic area of the world through a client regime. The results could destabilize the whole region.
The Horn of Africa, where Somalia lies, is newly oil-rich. It is also just miles across the Red Sea from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, overlooking the daily passage of large numbers of oil tankers and warships through that waterway. The United States has a huge military base in neighboring Djibouti that is being enlarged substantially and which will become the headquarters of a new U.S. military command being created specifically for Africa. As evidence of the area's importance, Gen. John Abizaid, the recent military commander of the region, visited Ethiopia to discuss Somalia, while Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Horn countries a few months ago in search of oil and trade agreements.
The current series of events began with the rise of the Islamic Courts more than a year ago. The Islamists avoided large-scale violence in defeating the warlords, who had held sway in Somalia ever since they drove out UN peacekeepers by killing 18 American soldiers in 1993, by rallying people to their side through establishing law and order. Washington was wary, fearing their possible support for terrorists. While they have denied any such intentions, some Islamists do have terrorist ties, but these have been vastly overstated in the West.
Washington, however, chose to view the situation only through the prism of its "war on terror." The Bush Administration supported the warlords -- in violation of a UN arms embargo it helped impose on Somalia many years ago -- indirectly funneling them arms and suitcases filled with dollars.
Many of these warlords were part of the Western-supported transitional "government" that had been organized in Kenya in 2004. But the "government" was so devoid of internal support that even after two years it was unable to move beyond the small western town of Baidoa, where it had settled. In the end, it was forced to turn to Somalia's archenemy Ethiopia for assistance in holding on even to Baidoa. Again in violation of the UN arms embargo, Ethiopia sent 15,000 troops to Somalia. Their arrival eroded whatever domestic credibility the government might have had.
The United States, whose troops have been sighted by Kenyan journalists in the region bordering Somalia, next turned to the UN Security Council. In another craven act resembling its post-facto legalization of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Council bowed to U.S. pressure and authorized a regional peacekeeping force to enter Somalia to protect the government and "restore peace and stability." This despite the fact that the UN has no right under its charter to intervene on behalf of one of the parties struggling for political supremacy, and that peace and stability had already been restored by the Islamists.
The war came soon after the UN resolution, its outcome a foregone conclusion thanks to the highly trained and war-seasoned Ethiopian army. The African Union called for the Ethiopians to end the invasion, but the UN Security Council made no such call. Ban Ki-moon, the incoming Secretary General, is being urged to treat the enormously complex situation in Darfur as his political challenge, but Somalia, while less complex, is more immediate. He has an opportunity to establish his credentials as an unbiased upholder of the UN Charter by seeking Ethiopia's withdrawal.
The Ethiopian military presence in Somalia is inflammatory and will destabilize this region and threaten Kenya, a U.S. ally and the only island of stability in this corner of Africa. Ethiopia is at even greater risk, as a dictatorship with little popular support and beset by two large internal revolts by Ogadenis and Oromos. It is also mired in a military stalemate with Eritrea, which has denied it secure access to seaports. It now seeks such access in Somalia.
The best antidote to terrorism in Somalia is stability. Instead of engaging with the Islamists to secure peace, the United States -- in its misguided determination to dominate the world -- has plunged a poor country into greater misery.
Salim Lone, a Kenyan whose last assignment in his UN career was as spokesman for the UN mission in Iraq immediately after the 2003 war, is a columnist for the Daily Nation in Nairobi. This commentary first appeared in The Nation (www.thenation.com).