Monthly Archives: April 2015

Kenya’s Sorrow: The U.S. Connection

Kenya’s Sorrow: The U.S. Connection

Dispatches From The edge

April 16, 2015

 

 

The systematic murder of 147 Kenyan university students by members of the Somalia-based Shabab organization on April 2 is raising an uncomfortable question: was the massacre an unintentional blowback from U.S. anti-terrorism strategy in the region? And were the killers forged by an ill-advised American supported Ethiopian invasion that transformed the radical Islamic organization from a marginal player into a major force?

 

As Kenyans were mourning their dead, opposition figures were openly opposing Kenya’s occupation of southern Somalia and bringing into question Washington’s blueprint for fighting terrorism: drones, Special Forces, and regional proxies.

 

Speaking in the port of Mombasa, former prime minister and opposition leader Raila Odinga called for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops, as did the Speaker of the National Assembly, Justin Muturi. Speaking at the funeral for one of the victims, Senator James Orengo said, “We know very well the consequences of a war of occupation. We must withdraw our troops from Somalia to end this.”

 

Absent from most of the mainstream American media was an examination of exactly what role the U.S. has played in Somalia over the past decade, and how Washington has helped create the current crisis.

 

A little history.

 

When military dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, Somalia fell into the chaos of clan warfare, sparking off a U.S. military intervention in 1992. While billed as a “humanitarian intervention,” the Americans aggressively sought to suppress the plague of warlords that had turned the nation’s capital, Mogadishu, into a shattered ruin. But the expedition derailed in 1993 after 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in the infamous Black Hawk down incident. The U.S. withdrew the following year.

 

Which doesn’t mean the U.S. went away, or that it didn’t apply a new strategy for Africa, one designed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. The genesis of that plan came from James Carafano, a West Point graduate and head of Heritage’s foreign policy section, and Nile Gardiner, director of the think tank’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, who drew up a document entitled “U.S. Military Assistance for Africa: A Better Solution.”

 

The strategy called for the creation of a U.S. military command for Africa, a focus on terrorism, and direct military intervention using air power and naval forces. The authors argue against putting U.S. troops on the ground, instead enlisting those of allies. Those recommendations were adopted by the Bush administration—and later the Obama administration—lock, stock and barrel. African Command (Africom) was created, as along with the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, to train troops in 16 nations that border the vast area embraced by world’s biggest desert.

 

While targeting “terrorism” is the strategy’s public face, Carafano and Gardiner argue that U.S. “vital interests” are involved on the continent, “With its vast natural and mineral resources,” Africa, say the two scholars, “remains important to the West, as it has been for hundreds of years, and its geostrategic significance is likely to rise in the 21st century.”

 

A major rationale behind the strategy is to checkmate Chinese influence in Africa and short circuit Beijing’s search for raw materials. China gets about one third of its oil from Africa, plus platinum, copper, timber and iron ore.
The new policy made its début in Somalia when the U.S. actively aided Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion to support the unpopular and isolated the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFGS). The invasion overthrew the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had brought Somalia its first stable government in 15 years.

 

The ICU was a coalition of Islamic organizations that included a small group calling itself the “Shabab,” Arabic for “Youth.” While the ICU was Islamic in ideology, it was more moderate than the Shabab. The ICU also had more support than the TFGS, because it had routed the clan warlords who had dominated Somalia since 1991.

 

However, those warlords—united in an organization incongruously called the “Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism”—were strongly supported by the U.S. CIA. Claiming that the ICU was linked to Al-Qaeda, Washington leaned on Ethiopia to invade. When they did, U.S. Special Forces based in Djibouti accompanied them and gave them intelligence and equipment. The U.S. Navy shelled a town in Southern Somalia, killing, according to Oxfam and the United Nations, 70 civilians and wounding more than a 100. While the New York Times claims that U.S. support for the invasion was “covert,” it was anything but.

 

The powerful Ethiopian Army crushed the ICU, but the brutality of the occupation that followed fired up a resistance movement led by the Shabab. Given that Ethiopians and Somalians are traditional enemies, and that the former is largely Christian, the latter overwhelmingly Muslim, one wonders what Washington was thinking when it backed the invasion.

 

It was the 2006 Ethiopian-U.S. invasion that turned the Shabab into a major player, just as the invasion of Iraq fueled the creation of, first, Al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.

 

The Shabab quickly took over most of southern and central Somalia, although their brutality and strict interpretation of Islam eventually alienated them from much of the population. However, the one thing that Somalians could unite around was expelling the Ethiopians, and after two years of ambushes, roadside bombs and suicide vests, Addis Abba withdrew most its forces.

 

At the time, the Shabab was not affiliated with Al-Qaeda—it did not do so until 2012—and its concerns were mainly local. The organization was more like the Taliban in Afghanistan, albeit with a more extreme interpretation of Islam. But that distinction was lost on Washington, which pressed the African Union (AU) to send in troops. In 2007, the AU, with UN compliance, established the African Union Mission in Somalia (AUMIS) and deployed 9,000 troops to support the TFGS.

 

It is no coincidence that the bulk of AUMIS troops are from Uganda and Burundi, two countries that receive U.S. aid, as does Ethiopia. From 2009, U.S. military aid to Addis Abada jumped 256 percent.

 

The U.S. also footed the bill for private mercenary organizations, like Bancroft Global Development, to train Ugandan and Burundi troops in counter-insurgency warfare. The fact that Bancroft is a private company shields it from public scrutiny, including by the U.S. Congress.

 

While the initial AUMIS deployment was not very successful, it finally drove the Shabab out of the nation’s capital, Mogadishu, although that was, in part, a reflection of the Shabab’s loss of support among Somalians, alienated by the group’s brutality. Eventually the organization was driven out of all Somalia’s major cities. But even with numerous setbacks, a recent attack in the capital that killed 15 people and wounded 20 demonstrates the Shabab still has a bite.

 

Kenya—another recipient of U.S. aid whose soldiers are trained by U.S. Special Forces—invaded southern Somalia in 2011 and seized the Shabab-controlled port of Kismayo . While publically the reason for the invasion was Shabab kidnappings of Kenyans and tourists, apparently Nairobi has long had its eye on the port of Lamu as part of a development plan for the northeast part of the country.

 

Again, the Shabab was scattered rather easily, but only then to resort of guerilla war and attacks on civilian targets in Kenya and Uganda. In 2011, it set off two bombs in Kampala, Uganda, that killed 76 people. In 2013, it killed 67 people in a shopping mall in Nairobi and then topped that with the massacre at Garissa University.

 

The response of the Kenyan government has been targeting ethnic Somalians living on the Kenyan side of the border with Somalia, threatening to close down one of the largest refugee camps in the world, and squeezing the country’s Muslim. Those are actions liable to alienate Kenya’s large ethnic Somali population and its minority Muslim communities. “Shabab needs to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion to gain a foothold,” security analyst Mohamed Mubarak told the Financial Times,” “And they may succeed if the Kenyan response is not thought out carefully.”

 

The blowback attacks have soured most Kenyans on the invasion. A poll taken last fall, six months before the Garissa University bloodbath, found that a majority of the country wants its troops out, and two in three Kenyans thought there would be more terrorist attacks.

 

What seems clear is that the Heritage Foundation’s blueprint for using military force in Africa has been a disaster. It has destabilized Somalia by overthrowing the ICU, spreading the war to Uganda and Kenya. It turned Libya into a failed state, which in turn unleashed a flood of arms that have helped fuel civil wars in Mali, Niger and the Central African Republic.

 

The widespread use of drones may kill some terrorist leaders, along with large numbers of civilians, and, rather than destroying organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Shabab, it ends up atomizing them into groups that are smaller and harder to track, but no less capable of committing mass murder. Indeed, for organizations like the Shabab and Al-Qaeda, drones have proved to be the 21st century’s most effective recruiting sergeants.

 

Military occupation sows the seeds of its own destruction, and, while using drones and proxies may keep the American death count down, that strategy ultimately creates more enemies than it eliminates.

 

The solution in Somalia (and Syria and Yemen) is political, not military. According to Bronwyn Bruton of the Council On Foreign Relations, the Shabab is “not a monolithic movement,” but includes leaders from the old Islamic Courts Union that the U.S. and it allies so disastrously overthrew. “Some of these leaders are extremists, and the idea of talking with them is unappetizing. But the United States can and should negotiate with them directly.”

 

In short, talking beats bombing and works better.

 

                                                —30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yemen & The Congress of Reaction

Dispatches From The Edge

April 3, 2015

 

 

While the ostensible rationale for Saudi Arabia’s recent intrusion into Yemen is that the conflict is part of a bitter proxy war with Iran, the coalition that Riyadh has assembled to intervene in Yemen’s civil war has more in common with 19th century Europe than the Middle East in the 21st.

 

When the 22-member Arab League came together at Sharm el Sheikh on Mar. 28 and drew up its plan to attack Houthi forces currently holding Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, the meeting bore an uncanny resemblance to a similar gathering of monarchies at Vienna in 1814. The leading voice at the Egyptian resort was Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. His historical counterpart was Prince Klemens von Metternich, Austria’s foreign minister, who designed the “Concert of Europe” to insure that no revolution would ever again threaten the monarchs who dominated the continent.

 

More than 200 years divides those gatherings, but their goals were much the same: to safeguard a small and powerful elite’s dominion over a vast area.

 

There were not only kings represented at Sharm el Sheikh. Besides the foreign ministers for the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Morocco, and Jordan—most of the Arab League was there, with lots of encouragement and support from Washington and London. But Saudi Arabia was running the show, footing the bills, and flying most the bombing raids against Houthi fighters and refugee camps.

The Yemen crisis is being represented as a clash between Iran and the Arab countries, and part of ongoing tension between Sunni and Shiite Islam. The League accuses Iran of overthrowing the Yemeni government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, using the Shiite Houthis as their proxies. But the civil war in Yemen is a long-running conflict over access to political power and resources, not religion, or any attempt by Iran to spread its influence into a strategic section of the Arabian Peninsula. And the outcome, as long-time Middle East journalist Patrick Cockburn points out, is likely the spread of sectarian warfare throughout the region.

 

 

The Houthis, like the Iranians, are Shiites, but of the Zaydi variety, not one that many Iranians would even recognize. And while the Houthis have been at war with the central government off and on since 1992, the issues are profane, not sacred.

 

Yemen—about the size of France, with 25 million people—is the poorest nation in the Middle East, with declining resources, an exploding population, and a host of players competing for a piece of the shrinking pie. Unemployment is above 40 percent and water is scarce. Oil, the country’s major export, is due to run out in the next few years.

 

The country is also one of the most fragmented in the region, divided between the poorer north and the richer, more populous, south, and riven by a myriad of tribes and clans. Until 1990 it was not even one country, and it took a fratricidal civil war in 1994 to keep it unified. There is still a strong southern secession movement.

 

The current war is a case in point. The Houthis fought six wars with former military strongman Abdullah Saleh, who was forced out of the presidency in 2011 by the GCC and the UN Security Council. Hadi, his vice-president, took over and largely ignored the Houthi—always a bad idea in Yemen. So aided by their former enemy, Saleh—who maintains a strong influence in the Yemeni armed forces—the Houthi went to war with Hadi. The new president was arrested by the Houthi, but escaped south to the port of Aden, then fled to Saudi Arabia when the Houthis and Saleh’s forces marched on the city.

 

That’s the simple version of the complexity that is Yemen. But complex was not a word encountered much at Sham el Sheikh. For the Arab League, this is all about Iran. The Houthis, said Yemen President-in-exile Hadi, are “Iranian stooges.”

 

Most independent experts disagree. The Houthis, says Towson University professor Charles Schmitz, an expert on the group, “are domestic, homegrown, and have deep roots in Yemen going back thousands of years.” He says that the Houthis have received support by Iran, but “not weapons, which they take from the Yemeni military.” “Does that mean they are going to do Iran’s bidding? I don’t think so.”

 

Both Democrats and Republican hailed the Saudi attacks. “I applaud the Saudis for taking this action to protect their homeland and to protect their own neighborhood,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Oh). U.S. Rep Adam Schiff (D-Ca), the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, agreed. The Obama administration says it is providing intelligence and logistical support for the operation.

 

U.S. involvement in Yemen is long-standing, dating back to 1979 and the Carter administration. According to UPI, the CIA funneled money to Jordan’s King Hussein to foment a north-south civil Yemen civil war, and U.S. Special Forces have been on the ground directing drone strikes for over a decade.

 

This, of course, creates certain logical disconnects. The U.S. is supporting the Saudi bombing in Yemen because the Houthis are allied with Iran. But in Iraq, the U.S. is bombing the Islamic State (ISIS) in support of Iran’s efforts to aid the Iraqi government’s war on the ISIS. And while the Riyadh government is opposed to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, aided by U.S. intelligence, it is attacking one of the major forces fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen, the Houthi. In the meantime, the Gulf Council has stepped up its support of the Nusra Front in Syria, a group tied to al-Qaeda and a sworn enemy of the Gulf monarchies and the U.S.

 

On one level this reaches the level of farce. On the other, the situation is anything but humorous. The Yemen intervention will deepen Shiite-Sunni divisions in the Islamic world and pull several countries into Yemen, the very definition of a quagmire. As Cockburn points out that while the Arab League’s code name for the Yemini adventure is “Operation Decisive Storm,” the military operation will almost certainly be the opposite. “In practice, a decisive outcome is the least likely prospect for Yemen, just like it has been in Iraq and Afghanistan. A political feature common to all three countries is that power is divided between so many players it is impossible to defeat or placate them all for very long.”

 

Even if the Houthis are driven back to their traditional base in the north, it would be foolhardy for any ground force to take them on in the mountains they call home. The Yemeni government tried six times and never succeeded. It is rather unlikely that Egyptian or Saudi troops will do any better. While the League did make a decision to form a 40,000 man army, how that will be constituted, or who will command it is not clear.

 

Besides stirring up more religious sectarianism, the Yemen war will aid the Saudis and the GCC in their efforts to derail the tentative nuclear agreement with Iran. If that agreement fails, a major chance for stability in the region will be lost. Saudi Arabia’s new found aggressiveness—and its bottomless purse—will gin up the civil war in Syria, increase tensions in northern Lebanon, and torpedo the possibility of organizing a serious united front against the ISIS.

 

While the U.S. has talked about a political solution, that is not what is coming out of the Arab league. The military campaign, says Arab League General Secretary Nabil el-Araby “will continue until all the Houthi militia retreats and disarms and a strong unified Yemen returns.” The bombings have already killed hundreds of civilians and generated tens of thousands of refugees. Gulf Council sources say that the air war may continue for up to six months.

 

Instead of endorsing what is certain to be a disaster, Washington should join the call by European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini for a ceasefire and negotiations. “I’m convinced that military actions is not a solution,” she said, calling on “all regional actors” to “act responsibly and constructively…for a return to negotiations.”

 

The Houthis are not interested in running Yemen. Senior Houthi leader Saleh Ali al-Sammad said that his organization “does not want anything more than partnership, not control.” Houthi ally and ex-president Saleh also said, “Let’s go to dialogue an ballot boxes,” not bombing. Yemen needs an influx of aid, not bombs, drones, and hellfire missiles.

 

The Congress of Europe muzzled European modernism for more than a generation, just as the Gulf Cooperation Council and Egypt will do their best to strangle what is left of the Arab Spring. Prince Metternich remained Austria’s Chancellor until a storm of nationalism and revolution swept across Europe in 1848 and brought down the congress of reaction.

 

That day will come for the 21st century’s Metternichs as well.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

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