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Tuesday, January 16, 2007
General Boykin's Christmas Vacation
There are still more questions than answers regarding American involvement in Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia.
By Matthew Yglesias Web Exclusive: 01.16.07
What did you do over your Christmas break? Me, I did nothing. But the government of Ethiopia, the only Christian regime in the Horn of Africa, did something a bit unusual -- it conquered Somalia and began an occupation of the capital, Mogadishu. In this day and age, obviously, one doesn't just "conquer" a country, one implements regime change. In the case of Somalia, Mogadishu and most of the country (two areas in the north have already found stability under the control of separatist movements) had been under the control of something called the Islamic Courts Movement (ICU), a grassroots Islamist enterprise that inspired clichés about a "harsh brand of justice" but did manage to bring some law and order to the formerly warlord-plagued country.
All this time, however, Somalia had a powerless de jure government set up by the international community, deeply divided amongst itself, and so lacking in support on the ground that its members didn't dare enter the capital. It did, however, control the town of Baidoa, where Ethiopia had stationed thousands of troops to protect it. And so things stood, with the stated American policy being efforts to avoid a larger regional war between Ethiopia and the ICU. Then came Christmas. While nobody was paying attention, Ethiopia's large and powerful (by African standards) military started marching on Mogadishu alongside some Somali government forces, which is to say warlord bands. Several thousand ICU soldiers were killed during routs of ICU forces in towns on the road between Baidoa and Mogadishu. At this point, the remaining ICU military began to "melt away," the Ethiopians marched into Mogadishu, and strict sharia law was rapidly displaced by Somalia's customary blend of moderate Islam and total anarchy, as militia roadblocks and disorder once again spread throughout the capital.
The United States gave what the papers called "tacit support" to all of this, partly on the grounds that three suspects from the 1998 East African embassy bombings were in Somalia. This, to the best of my knowledge, is true, though only one of the three individuals was actually indicted and all had come to Somalia before there was an ICU. Some observers, like TAP Online's own Robert Farley, thought this tacit support made sense, since Ethiopia had its own reasons for acting, one might as well back the regional big dog if it's going to invade of its own accord, and the Ethiopia-backed interim government would be preferable to the ICU from the American standpoint.
Things, however, appear considerably more complicated, and American involvement likely extended beyond "tacit support" for Ethiopia. As the Ethiopian advance was really getting under way on December 26, Major Kelley Thibodeau, who handles PR for the U.S. military's base in Djibouti, made the odd remark that "officially, we haven't put anybody in Somalia." (Why add that "officially" qualifier?) Then, on January 6, American special operations forces used an AC-130 gunship to attack an alleged al-Qaeda cell in Somalia. On January 9, Daveed Garstenstein-Ross, a right-wing terrorism consultant and blogger, reported that "U.S. air and ground forces covertly aided the Ethiopian military since its intervention began on Christmas day," citing military intelligence sources.
Later that day, Newsweek reported that Lieutenant General William Boykin, mastermind of secret American special forces operations against suspected terrorists, was going to be sacked by new Defense Secretary Robert Gates. As of January 10, the Pentagon still wasn't saying who, exactly, had been hit in the AC-130 strike or why, though it still insisted "principal al-Qaeda leadership," whatever that means, were the target.
Michael Hirsch and Mark Hosenball emphasized in their Newsweek article that there was no evidence that the Somalia operation in particular is the reason Boykin is going to be let go. On the other hand, they suggested that Boykin's general eagerness to unleash special operations forces into third world proxy wars was the issue, and that's exactly what happened in Somalia. What's more, readers may recall that Boykin is a bit unhinged. He's the same general who, describing his experiences battling a warlord in Somalia in the early 1990s to an audience, remarked "I knew that my God was bigger than his God. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol," also noting that America's real enemy in the war on terrorism is "satan" and that "if we come against them in the name of Jesus," victory is assured.
Boykin is, in short, exactly the sort of person who might think a Christmas-week invasion of Muslim Somalia by Christian Ethiopia backed by American special forces was a peachy idea whether or not it actually made sense on normal counterterrorism grounds. Maybe he just ordered this up while everyone was on vacation, only to get sacked as soon as his boss got back to work at the Pentagon. Or maybe Bush and his whole administration were on board after all. Nobody real knows.
And more to the point, nobody in Washington is talking about what we've actually done and why. Troops sent into Somalia to follow up on the AC-130 strike told The Washington Post that "no one can confirm a high-value target" was present at the scene. They did, however, find documents indicating that Aden Ayrow, not an al-Qaeda figure but a commander in the ICU military, had been there. The strike looks, in short, as if it was simply undertaken in support of Ethiopia's military adventure. Mogadishu is descending into chaos, with gun battles on the streets and predictable popular anger at the foreign invaders, their foreign backers (i.e., us), and their domestic puppets in the de jure government. An untold number of people have already been killed in the fighting, and many more are likely to die if Somalia devolves again into civil war, a situation that will only make the country more hospitable to al-Qaeda.
What's more, nobody can quite explain what it is we've accomplished, what we hoped to accomplish, or what we think we may in the future accomplish by doing this. A January 13 New York Times articles cited special forces sources as arguing that the operation should be a model for future conduct, but their explanation, that it "flushed the Qaeda suspects from their hide-outs and gave American intelligence operatives fresh information about their whereabouts," is bizarre. Sponsoring a foreign invasion of an entire country to capture three suspects would be serious overkill by any reasonable standard, but pronouncing the operation a to-be-mimicked success when you haven't even captured the targets is inane.
At a minimum, it's surely too early to talk about repeating this operation until we get some kind of account of what was done in the first place. The good news is that with a new Democratic Congress in place, there's actually some chance of getting answers. Senators and congressmen have a lot on their plates between Bush's plan to escalate the war in Iraq and the administration's renewed hints that it plans to launch a war with Iran, but the committees charged with overseeing America's military and intelligence services should try to spare some time for the Horn of Africa as well.