A Dark Deja Vu in Somalia

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To many Africans old enough to remember the Cold War, the bloody conflict currently unfolding in Somalia will be awfully familiar. Back before the Berlin Wall fell, localized power struggles all over the continent often turned into full-scale regional wars when the protagonists cast themselves, or were cast — however improbably — as torch-bearers for Washington or Moscow. Such association would bring boundless diplomatic and financial support, not to mention boatloads of weapons and other military assistance, enabling local strongmen to wage self-serving wars for years on end. There's no Cold War any longer, of course, but in the case of Somalia, the "Global War on Terror" may be having a similar effect.

The U.S. has backed Ethiopia's military intervention on behalf of the beleaguered and unpopular — but internationally recognized — Somali government, in what looks set to be a protracted war that could draw in most of Somalia's neighbors. Washington's reason for supporting the offensive, rather than calling for an end to hostilities, is that the enemies of the Ethiopians and the Somali government are an Islamist movement viewed by the U.S. as in cahoots with al-Qaeda.

But the "war on terror" prism conceals the complexity of a conflict based on clan, political and regional rivalries that, in some cases, date back to the 1960s. And regional analysts fear that the tension will be exacerbated rather than resolved by the responses of outside players.

While the U.S. and Ethiopia have backed the Somali government and the warlords that operate under its umbrella on the banner of fighting al-Qaeda, the Islamists have allegedly rallied financial and military support from such quarters as Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Iran by painting themselves as victims of an Islamophobic Western conspiracy. And Osama bin Laden certainly helped Ethiopia and the Somali government make their case for U.S. support when, in October, he warned Western governments to stay out of Somalia.

Ethiopia is not simply acting as Washington's regional policeman, however. It has a long-running border dispute with Somalia that led to two years of open warfare in the late 1970s, and it sees the nationalist inclination of the Islamists — and their vow to take control of the Ogaden desert from Ethiopia — as an immediate threat to its own interests. (The Islamists actually back secessionist insurgents in that region.) Given Ethiopia's intervention on behalf of the government, it comes as no surprise that Addis Ababa's fiercest foe, neighboring Eritrea, is supporting and arming the Somali Islamists.

For all the involvement of outside players, however, the Somali conflict remains a domestic power struggle at heart. It pits the Transitional Federal Government, a product of years of painstaking horse-trading among rival clan warlords, against the Council of Islamic Courts, a loose Islamist alliance strongly nationalist in character — which has vowed to break the power of the warlords and unite all of Somalia under Sharia law (although it happens to be led by clan rivals of the dominant clan in the government camp).

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, the Islamists' displacement of hated warlords in southern and central Somalia was largely welcomed by the population. However, the strictures they have imposed on the population in the name of a fiercely conservative interpretation of Islam have also generated resentment. But the regional and international context of Somalia is quite different from that of Afghanistan a decade ago: The Islamists cannot prevail as long as Ethiopia is willing to lend the beleaguered government its military muscle — well-armed and trained by U.S. advisers, in contrast to the ragtag and mostly teenage light infantry of the Islamists.

But it is equally unlikely that Ethiopian military power will subdue the Islamist challenge inside Somalia. Indeed, the government's reliance on forces of the old enemy is unlikely to endear it to the Somali citizenry. Although Ethiopia promises to withdraw its forces within days, they had been active in Somalia for months before their presence was officially acknowledged, and a speedy withdrawal would leave a vacuum that the Islamists would once again fill. Yet having effectively repelled an Islamist advance on Baidoa, the Ethiopians risk losing much of their tactical advantage if they tried to capture Islamist strongholds, particularly the capital. Their goal, instead, according to Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, is to weaken the Islamists militarily in order to force them to negotiate with the government from a weaker position. But the fierce fighting last weekend and the passions stoked by open Ethiopian intervention may militate against any new compromise.

Instead, the escalating war will likely ensure that Somalia remains a failed state for the foreseeable future, a battleground not only for local clan and political rivalries but also for regional and international strategic "great games." There are unlikely to be any clear winners anytime soon, but the losers almost certainly will be the Somali people, who after more than 16 years of war, warlordism and famine, can only look forward to more of the same.