It was an off-hand compliment during a January 2007 dinner meeting between Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, plus staff, and then-U.S. Central Commander boss General John Abizaid. But Al Nayhan’s jocular praise, as reported in WikiLeaks’ trove of leaked diplomatic cables, is a rare admission that the United States played a central role in the disastrous December 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, a move that ultimately emboldened the very Islamic extremists the U.S. and Ethiopia had hoped to squash.
“The Somalia job was fantastic,” Al Nahyan interjected between discussions of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the prince’s desire to buy Reaper drones for his air force. At the time of Al Nahyan’s comment, the dust was just settling from Ethiopia’s Blitzkrieg-style assault toward Mogadishu. Some 50,000 Ethiopian troops, supported by T-55 tanks, Hind helicopters and Su-27 jet fighters, had cut a bloody swath through the lightly-armed forces of the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of mostly nationalist Islamic fighters that prior to the invasion had controlled much of Somalia.
The Somali attack had surprised outside observers. Ethiopia and Somalia had been rivals a long time, but no one had expected such brutal fighting, and so suddenly. It was fairly obvious that Ethiopia had received significant help — even urging — for its invasion. For one, Ethiopia’s air force did not appear capable of coordinated air strikes in support of on-the-move ground troops; it seemed likely that the Su-27s were piloted by Russian or Ukrainian mercenaries — a time-honored tradition in Africa. What’s more, Ethiopia’s army didn’t possess the intelligence or logistical skill for long-range operations. Those, not coincidentally, are particular American strengths.