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Why Ethiopia is Winning in Somalia

The keys to a surprising military campaign. by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross for Pajamas Media Edited by Richard Miniter The startlingly rapid retreat of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a Taliban-like group linked to Osama bin Laden, surprised military intelligence officers who less than a week ago were predicting a total route of Somalia's secular transitional federal government. The intensity of air strikes by Ethiopia, which has long been allied with the transitional government, has helped turn the tide. Ethiopia's ground forces, already based in Somalia, have also played a critical role. Ethiopia's success was not inevitable: This past week an American military intelligence officer told Pajamas Media that the ICU "will overrun Baidoa," where the transitional government has been headquartered, and that the only question was when Baidoa would fall. Pajamas Media spoke with the same officer yesterday. He is now optimistic about the Ethiopians' chances, with one caveat: "Unless you kill the ICU, it will come back. My worry is they'll drive the ICU out and it will come back in a couple of months."

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December 27, 2006 - 8:23 am

There may be lessons for the United States in Ethiopia’s success. Abdiweli Ali, an assistant professor at Niagara University who is in contact with transitional government military commanders on the ground, says that Ethiopia has less concern than the U.S. about civilian casualties. There is no reliable estimate of civilian deaths, but the number is believed to be in the hundreds. “We’re fighting wars with one hand tied behind our backs,” Professor Ali says. “In Iraq we’re trying to be nice, thinking we’ll give candy to people on the streets and they’ll love us. But people will understand later on if you just win now and provide them with security.”

A second lesson relates to the media. The Ethiopian government is generally less sensitive to media criticism than the U.S. government-and is likely to encounter far less criticism in the first place, since the press traditionally gives short shrift to coverage of Africa.

The American intelligence officer who earlier predicted the transitional government’s defeat tells PJ Media that there are two major reasons why both he and the ICU underestimated the Ethiopian military.

First, Ethiopia’s air power was decisive. Over the weekend, Ethiopian jets attacked several airports used by the ICU, and struck recruiting centers and other strategic targets in ICU-run towns. Professor Ali reports that the ICU’s shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons are unable to hit Ethiopia’s aircraft at high altitudes. While the ICU may have some surface-to-air missiles, these devices would be quite old-and complex Soviet weaponry tends to degrade.

But even more important than the fighter jets, the intelligence officer said, is Ethiopia’s use of Mi-24 Hind helicopter gun ships that can target the ICU’s ground forces. While the ICU might use rocket-propelled grenades against helicopters, as we saw in the 1993 Black Hawk Down incident, thus far the ICU claims to have shot down a single Ethiopian helicopter.

Second, the military intelligence officer said that he underestimated Ethiopia’s willingness to commit to the fight against the ICU. “This campaign is far more far-sighted than we expected,” he said. “They didn’t just do this on the fly; they had to have been planning this for several weeks. This is a major commitment.”

Dahir Jibreel, the transitional government’s permanent secretary in charge of international cooperation, is in constant contact with transitional government leaders who are conducting the military campaign. He says two other factors were critical in Ethiopia’s military success. One is that the ICU committed a strategic blunder by spreading its forces too thin. About 1500 kilometers (some 750 miles) separates Kismayo, a strategic port city that the ICU had captured, from Galkayo, the capital of Puntland that the ICU has been trying to overrun. The roads between these cities are poor to nonexistent. The ICU has tried to hold most of the strategic locations that separate the two cities: Jibreel says they simply lack the manpower to do so.

Moreover, Jibreel says that the ICU’s collapse has been hastened by its growing unpopularity. “The ICU was terrorizing villages and towns using technicals [pickups with heavy weponry mounted in the rear bed] that the population can’t stand up and fight against,” Jibreel tells PJ Media. “But they were not wanted by the people. They were alien. They were trying to use an alien ideology of fanatic Islam, and they had no clan backing.”

One of the ICU’s major blunders was decreeing that women couldn’t leave the house without a mahram (male relative who would act as a guard). Professor Ali explains that because of the civil war that enveloped Somalia in the 1990s, more than half of the breadwinners in the country are women. This decree crippled their ability to earn a living. Nor was this the most draconian of the ICU’s rules: in one southern Somali town, the Islamic Courts threatened to behead citizens who failed to pray five times a day.

For that reason, Professor Ali and figures in the transitional government report that Somalis have reacted well when the transitional government has taken over their cities.

While the present situation favors the Ethiopians and the transitional government, a few military considerations should be carefully watched. Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed, who heads the ICU’s executive council, has already called for insurgent operations against the Ethiopians. And a confidential United Nations report warns that “the ICU is fully capable of turning Somalia into what is currently an Iraq-type scenario, replete with roadside and suicide bombers, assassinations and other forms of terrorist and insurgent-type activities.”

The transitional government, however, believes that this is an unlikely scenario. Jibreel outlines a number of reasons that he thinks an insurgency can be prevented. Initially, he thinks the transitional government can “seal the airspace and the coast” and thus prevent the Islamic Courts leadership from leaving the country to set up insurgent operations. Moreover, he thinks that Somalis will reject attempts to establish an insurgent movement, since the ICU preaches a strict version of Islam that is alien to Somalia.

Some bloggers are unconvinced by the transitional government’s argument. Bill Roggio, a military analyst who has carefully followed the clash between the ICU and Ethiopian military at The Fourth Rail, tells PJ Media that he believes that the ICU will be able to establish an insurgent campaign. However, he thinks the transitional government and Ethiopians will have an easier time fighting it than the U.S. has had in Iraq because “they’re not under the scrutiny of the international media.”

A second consideration for the Ethiopians’ war is the potential for international pressure. A military intelligence officer tells PJ Media that serious pressure from Europe could force Ethiopia to stop its attack. “That would be a disaster,” he comments.

To recap: the ICU began a massive attack against Baidoa, the south-central Somali city where the transitional government is located, last week. Over the past few days, the ICU has retreated from such key strategic towns as Burhakaba and Dinsor. The ICU’s retreat seems hasty: ICU forces have even abandoned their weaponry and technicals as they flee.

If Ethiopia can successfully complete its military campaign, it is worth recalling the factors that allowed the ICU to rise to power in the first place, such as the lawlessness of the warlords’ rule. Professor Ali says that the transitional government has a plan to avoid repeating the problem. Currently, it is in the process of establishing a “civilian and security administration” in every city it captures, in an effort to establish civil society and guarantee security.

But Professor Ali says that one critical factor is the U.S.’s willingness to provide Somalia with nation-building aid. “Believe me,” he tells PJ Media, “just one million dollars to the TFG to take care of this will go a long way.”

Jibreel also emphasizes the importance of aid to the transitional government. He stresses the need to establish a national security apparatus, and institute a federal structure and constitution that includes Somaliland and Puntland. He also foresees national elections within two years, as well as comprehensive efforts to reconcile the various clans in the wake of Somalia’s civil war.

“If we don’t do this swiftly,” he warns, “we may win the war but lose the peace.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam (Tarcher/Penguin 2007). His articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal Europe, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and The Washington Times.

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