Somalia could be Ethiopia’s quagmire

Times Staff Writer

Ethiopia’s attacks against Islamic forces in Somalia may have delivered a short-term military victory, but analysts warned that a longer offensive could present the U.S. ally with some of the same challenges facing American forces in Iraq.

Airstrikes against the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and other towns Sunday and Monday demonstrated Ethiopia’s military superiority over the Islamic forces that seized most of southern Somalia during the summer.

But Ethiopia would be hard-pressed to dispatch enough troops to capture and occupy Islamic-held areas of Somalia.


“I don’t understand what Ethiopia’s objective is,” said David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and now a political science professor at George Washington University. “I can’t imagine their objective is to occupy and hold Somalia. It was a very limited victory.”

Most experts agree that Ethiopia’s battle-tested army, numbering as many as 150,000 troops, could easily beat Somalia’s ragtag Islamic fighters, which are believed to total under 10,000.

But Islamists say they would compensate for their lack of numbers and sophisticated weaponry by pursuing an unconventional war, including suicide attacks and other insurgency-style tactics that U.S. and allied troops face in Iraq.

“The Ethiopians could get bogged down into a hopeless, long-term guerrilla campaign with enormous supply lines,” Shinn said. “I don’t see how they ‘defeat’ the Islamists in the long run.”

The attacks Sunday and Monday marked the first time Ethiopia has publicly acknowledged taking direct military action against Somalia’s Islamists.

Ethiopian officials said they acted to preempt threats by Islamic forces to launch a “holy war” against them. Ethiopia is also moving to protect Somalia’s weak transitional government, which has been battling with Islamists over who will control the Horn of Africa nation.


Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991.

Anger over the Ethiopian airstrikes reverberated Monday throughout Mogadishu. Local radio stations flooded the airwaves with nationalist songs, recalling the history of tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia, which last went to war in 1977.

Angry youths rioted in several Somali cities, urging all adult males to join the Islamic forces.

The Ethiopian attacks appeared to be bolstering support for the Islamists.

“I used to think that the Islamic courts were just another interest group, but now I recognize that they are standing up for the country and religion,” said Muse Ali Omar, a banana vendor in Mogadishu.

“Ethiopia is my enemy, I will not sell bananas anymore,” he said. “I will take my gun and go for jihad. Otherwise I am sure they will kill me in my banana kiosk if I wait for them here.”

Mohammed Ibrahim Mohammed, a moderate Muslim, said, “As long as the West is supporting Ethiopian invasion, it will open the door for Islamic courts.”

The Ethiopian strikes have helped unify the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of religious leaders that came together to defeat U.S.-backed warlords this year. In recent months, some cracks were beginning to appear inside the alliance over how rigorously to implement Islamic law.

But more recently, U.S. and Ethiopian officials have concluded that extremists have seized control of the courts. They accuse court leaders of having links to terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda.

Last weekend, one Islamist leader issued an invitation to Muslims worldwide to join the fighting in Somalia. Eritrea is also believed to have dispatched as many as 2,000 troops to aid the Islamists.

U.S. officials Monday called on Somali groups to end their fighting, but they did not call for an Ethiopian withdrawal.

“Ethiopia has genuine security concerns,” said one U.S. official, adding that State Department officials have urged the Ethiopian government to use “maximum restraint.”

The U.S. has worked closely with Ethiopia, including training elements of its military, in its four-year effort to contain the spread of Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa. U.S. officials repeatedly have denied using Ethiopia as a proxy against Somali Islamists, and have insisted that they argued against an Ethiopian invasion with officials in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

A U.S. military official said the Pentagon, which set up a 1,500-man task force in neighboring Djibouti in 2002 because of concerns Al Qaeda-linked groups were seeking refuge in the region, has yet to take any action in response to the Ethiopian offensive.

“We’re just watching it,” the official said.

Shinn said international leaders should immediately intervene and push to remove all foreign fighters from Somalia.

“A week ago I was still optimistic that we could get this cat back in the box,” he said. “Now I’m not clear if that’s an option.”

Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Washington and special correspondent Abukar Albadri in Mogadishu contributed to this report.