Ethiopia rolls 1950s tanks into Somalia

I was just reading a story about how the Ethiopian-backed forces are “rolling in the tanks” and quickly pushing back resistance in Somalia.

Then I noticed a new Reuters image of a Soviet-designed T-55 tank entering Jowar (90 km north of Mogadishu):


All the more impressive, I suppose, that even 1950s-era technology is able to make such an impression in the news as well as forge inroads in the conflict. Clearly the Ethiopians have gone from last to first in terms of military strategy in the region and/or the Somali Islamist forces are ill-equipped when compared to other groups like the Hezbullah. Oh, and I keep seeing vague references to foreign troops working within the Ethiopian forces:

The second round of deliberations broke down over Qatar’s insistence that the statement urge Ethiopian and other foreign troops to withdraw from the country.

More specifically:

Kenya has denied Muslim allegations that Ethiopian and U.S. troops were operating in northern Kenya, The Daily Nation reported Monday.

The leaders of Muslim organizations in Kenya, at a meeting in Nairobi Sunday, had alleged the troops were in the country in preparation for a war against Somalia’s powerful Union of Islamic Courts militia.

From another perspective, Ethiopia has been planning a “defensive” offensive (sound familiar?) bolstered by lingering disputes with Eritrea:

Medhane Tadesse, an Ethiopian historian, says that Ethiopia has been forced into a corner by its neighbors, and will have to come out fighting.

“The idea of Eritrea is to get back at Ethiopia. The Arab bloc are doing this as part of a global Islamic issue,” says Mr. Tadesse, director of the Center for Policy Research and Dialogue in Addis Ababa.

So the real question is what Eritrea’s role is and will be in the coming days. Were they brokered out of the conflict in advance, perhaps even by Europe or the US? They may be accused of playing a similar role as Syria in Lebanon, but right now the effect has been less pronounced. Were they unable to provide enough supplies and/or maintain cohesion of the Islamic forces? Or maybe they advocate a return to classic guerrilla tactics to increase nationalist fervor while bogging down the occupying conventional forces?

EDITED TO ADD (28 Dec 2006): Just read in the New York Times that the US government is trying to spin reports to downplay the role of the Ethiopians:

The press must not be allowed to make this about Ethiopia, or Ethiopia violating the territorial integrity of Somalia,�? the guidance said.

Shame. The reality of the Horn of Africa is that Ethiopia and Somalia have longstanding territorial disputes, fueled by secessionist movements (Tigray, Ogaden, Eritrea), and it makes perfect sense why Ethiopia would be itching at the trigger to send forces deep into Somalia and commandeer the main roads, if not control the coast itself.

I now expect the major news sources in the US to start saying things like “the Somali forces, backed by an international force, are making inroads against the Islamic armies”. That’s about as accurate as saying the US-led offensive using special forces backed by Ethiopian conventional troops has successfully destroyed the stable government established by Islamic rulers. Both are extreme views, but my guess is the emphasis on downplaying the Ethiopian role is to prevent political trouble from the Arab and African organizations who will argue against an occupational force controlling Somalia. In other words, like yet another Cold War flashback, this could be another case of destabilization of sovereign states by the Bush administration to gain unfettered access to search and destroy suspected anti-US elements. The New York Times goes on to suggest that the US may have been intimately involved in angering Islamic forces and leading them to assert control over the region:

This year, the C.I.A. began a covert operation to arm and finance the warlords, who had united under the banner of the Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism. Operated from the intelligence agency’s station in Nairobi, Kenya, the effort involved frequent trips to Mogadishu by case officers from the agency and paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to the warlords.

The operation backfired. When the payments to the warlords shifted the military balance of the country in their favor, the Islamists started a strike against the American-backed coalition and ran it out of Mogadishu.

Compare that to the news now coming out of the BBC:

Transitional government spokesperson Abdirahman Dinari told the BBC the majority of the forces poised to retake Mogadishu were Somali, not Ethiopian.

He added: “The government is committed to restore law and order and to implement institutions.”

Why does that first statement remind me of “…on the third Day of Christmas, the US sent to Somalia, three French advisors, two Ethiopian doves, and an American in a pear tree”? By day four the majority of the forces “poised” were Somali? We have to realize that the Islamic forces, whether we love or hate them, had recently established order to the point where markets were functioning again and even the airport was reopened. To tear all that down again in order to restore it under the pretense of establishing order…

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