“You Americans … ” His words were being translated by my fixer but his tone and body language needed no interpretation. Mahmoud Samo, owner of a small Mogadishu general store, was angry. Chanting a litany of woes – rising prices, runaway inflation, danger to himself, his staff and his customers – all caused by fighting between the occupying Ethiopian army and various insurgent groups, Samo insisted the Ethiopians never would’ve come without U.S. support. Therefore, he said, Mogadishu’s current troubles ultimately are America’s fault.
It’s a sentiment I’ve heard echoed by many Somalis in the past couple weeks, in many cases expressed quite eloquently, and in English, by some of Mogadishu’s surviving educated class. Meanwhile everyday Somalis express their resentment towards America in more basic ways. When they see us, they stare. They whisper. They gather in clumps and move towards us. Some might grunt, “Gallo!” – Somali for “infidel.” Their neighborhood leaders step forward, demanding to know why we’re intruding … and demanding that we leave. It’s clear that their command has two meanings. They want the Gallo out of their ‘hood – and they want America to butt out of Somalia’s business.
Are they oversimplifying a complex situation? Probably. After all, a large portion of the food aid that keeps hundreds of thousands alive is donated by Washington. But Samo’s right to be critical of U.S. military policy in Somalia. The United States is playing both sides, supporting the army inciting much of the fighting AND the army with the best chance of bringing peace. The self-defeating strategy reflects deep confusion in Pentagon circles about how to handle Africa’s most tenacious conflict.
When 50,000 Ethiopians streamed over the border last December, they did so with U.S. logistics support, U.S. training and with U.S. warplanes flying overhead. America’s aim: to destroy a regime suspected of collaborating with Islamic terrorists. Using African armies as proxies to execute U.S. war aims is an express intent of the Pentagon’s new Africa Command, stood up in Germany in October. The Ethiopia-Somalia war, which kicked off before Africom was formally established, nonetheless represents an early test for the proxy concept.
Problem is, the Ethiopians aren’t the only army in Mogadishu getting U.S. support. The African Union peacekeeping force, so far all Ugandan, counts on U.S. training, cash (at least $40 million pledged early this year) and contractor logistics support courtesy of merc firm DynCorp. Due to their light touch and healthy relationship with the local populace, the peacekeepers represent Mogadishu’s best chance for security, assuming the additional troops from Burundi and Ghana promised for next year actually show up. But before the A.U. can expand into Mogadishu’s most violent neighborhoods, the Ethiopians have to withdraw, Ugandan officers told me. The two armies have separate aims, separate methods and entirely opposed attitudes about civilian casualties. But they have the same sponsor. Something’s got to give.
“Somalia defies the imagination in terms of complexity, with clans and sub-clans that dominate internal politics,” says Theresa Whelan, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for African affairs. “The solution in Somalia is not really military.”
True, but a credible and welcome military force – the A.U. – stands a chance at creating some space for the clans to talk. The Ethiopians are too busy shooting up Bakara Market to talk to anybody.
Day One: “You Come to Africa, But You May Never Leave.”
Day Two: Barnstorming!
Day Three: Enclaves
Day Four: Everybody Parley Down!
Day Five: “I Quit!”
Day Six: ”We’re Here and We’re Surviving.”
Day Seven: Wise Old Children
Day Eight: Riot!
Day Nine: Gunfire Is Boring
Day Ten: Bombs Are Boring
Day Eleven: Games Kids Play
Day Twelve: This Cash Is Broke
Day Thirteen: Warlording 101
Day Fourteen: Arresting All the Wrong People