US counterterrorism policies and support for the Ethiopian-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia have helped create an increasingly desperate humanitarian and security situation in the East African nation, whose population has become increasingly radicalized and anti-US, according to a new report by a major US human rights group.
The report, authored by Ken Menkhaus, a Davidson College professor who is regarded as one of the foremost US experts on the Horn of Africa, calls for a thorough reassessment of US policy, including its support for the TFG and the primacy it has given to its "war on terrorism" in Somalia.
"US counterterrorism policies have not only compromised other international agendas in Somalia, they have generated a high level of anti-Americanism and are contributing to radicalization of the population," concluded the report, entitled "Somalia: A Country in Peril, a Foreign Policy Nightmare."
"In what could become a dangerous instance of blowback, defense and intelligence operations intended to make the United States more secure from the threat of terrorism may be increasing the threat of jihadist attacks on American interests," the report stressed.
The 17-page report, released by ENOUGH, a group launched last year by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Washington-based Center for American Progress (CAP), was released amid continuing violence in Somalia that has forced some one million people to flee their homes since December 2006, when US-backed Ethiopian and TFG forces swept the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) out of the capital, Mogadishu, and other major cities and towns.
The UN recently estimated that, barring substantial improvement in the security situation, some 3.5 million Somalis will be dependent on humanitarian aid by the end of this year.
"The (current) crisis is fundamentally different and fundamentally worse than the situation of the last decade and a half," said Chris Albin-Lackey, a Horn of Africa specialist at Human Rights Watch (HRW), who appeared with Menkhaus at the report’s release at a conference sponsored by at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars here Wednesday.
Albin-Lackey, who has conducted some 80 interviews of Somali refugees in East Africa in the past month, said ongoing violence, including almost daily artillery bombardments by Ethiopian army and TFG forces on the one hand and opposition militias, including the Islamist Shabaab on the other, as well as assassinations carried out by both sides, have added to the insecurity.
"People have nowhere to turn for security," he said, adding that search operations by TFG forces, while nominally for the purpose of arresting suspected insurgents, had become "an excuse for murder, rape and looting on an incredibly large scale." As a result, he said, Mogadishu has become "largely depopulated" with about two-thirds of the population or about 800,000 people having left their homes there over the past 18 months.
Menkhaus described last month’s signing by the TCG and the opposition Alliance for the Reliberation of Somalia (ARS) of the "Djibouti Agreement" negotiated between moderate leaders of both sides with the help of UN Special Representative Ahmadou Ould-Abdulla last June as an "important step" toward reconciliation but warned that hard-liners in both camps could derail it.
The agreement, which has been rejected by the Shabaab and was only agreed to by the hawkish TFG president, Adullahi Yusuf, under heavy pressure from Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi, calls for a cessation of hostilities, deployment of a UN peacekeeping force, and the subsequent withdrawal of Ethiopian forces.
"The hope is that any agreement that facilitates the withdrawal of Ethiopian forces will open the door for an end to the insurgency," according to the report.
But the implementation of the agreement faces "steep challenges," warned Menkhaus, not least because "the moderates [who negotiated the accord] don’t control any of the armed groups." While the Shabaab have already denounced the ARS leaders as "apostates," he noted, hard-liners in the TFG know that they can stay in power "if and only if the Ethiopians stay."
Only by reinforcing the moderates can the international community, including the US, enhance the chances for the agreement’s successful implementation and, with it, the chances for reconciliation, according to Menkhaus. But that will require major changes in US and western policies, which have "actually worked to strengthen and embolden hardliners" over the past two years.
In that respect, the US emphasis on counterterrorism has been particularly destructive, not only in supporting the Ethiopian offensive in December, 2006, but, more recently, in placing the Shabaab on its list of designated terrorist groups last March. That step not only isolated opposition moderates from their own coalition but also gave the Shabaab "even more reason to sabotage" ongoing peace talks.
At the same time, Washington has provided "robust financial and logistical support to armed paramilitaries resisting the command and control of the TGF, even though they technically wear a TFG hat" to both fight the Shabaab and track down suspected terrorists.
"To the extent that these security forces also deeply oppose…reconciliation efforts with the opposition, the US counterterrorism partnerships have also undermined peace-building efforts by emboldening spoilers in the government camp," according to the report.
Washington has not been alone in supporting the hard-liners, however. As part of their state-building agenda, other western donors have also provided direct support to TGF security forces under the control of the hawks. Despite the UN’s role as a supposedly neutral broker between the TFG and the opposition, the UN Development Program, has also provided security assistance to the TFG.
The Tomahawk missile attack that killed Shabaab leader Aden Hashi Ayro in May the latest in a series of similar strikes against armed Islamists in Somalia, allegedly tied to al-Qaeda resulted in a sharp radicalization in the group, which announced at the time that it would strike against US and western targets, including aid workers, as well as Ethiopian and TFG forces, compounding an already dramatic humanitarian crisis.
"Somalia today is the most dangerous place in the world for humanitarian aid workers," according to Menkhaus. More than 20 humanitarian workers have been killed since January, while some 30 more have been kidnapped.
"The situation in Somalia today exceeds the worst-case scenarios conjured up by regional analysts when they first contemplated the possible impact of an Ethiopian military occupation," according to the report. "Over the past 18 months, Somalia has descended into terrible levels of displacement and humanitarian need, armed conflict and assassinations, political meltdown, radicalization and virulent anti-Americanism."
"We’ve gotten the exact opposite of what we set out to achieve," Menkhaus noted, including a "population radically angry at us and very fertile ground for al-Qaeda."
(Inter Press Service)