The optimistic view of Somalia

Just a day after Ethiopian troops left Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union government they ousted had already retaken abandoned checkpoint posts. This morning, Islamic insurgents fired on the Presidential palace. Various insurgent groups now control all but a few bits and pieces of the country. Amid all this chaos, the transitional government who is supposedly ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
589536_090114_somalia5.jpg
589536_090114_somalia5.jpg

Just a day after Ethiopian troops left Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union government they ousted had already retaken abandoned checkpoint posts. This morning, Islamic insurgents fired on the Presidential palace. Various insurgent groups now control all but a few bits and pieces of the country. Amid all this chaos, the transitional government who is supposedly in charge is bickering its way into irrelevance.

Ethiopian troops have held together a violent status quo for the last two years. You can't help ask the question: now as they go, what on earth is going to happen? I've written my own pessimistic prediction. So here's the unlikely upside, an idea I owe to conversations with analysts over the last few months.

In many ways, Ethiopia's presence has made Somalia worse, not better. Before the 2006 invasion, the Islamic Courts Union had some measure of control over the country. Yes, there were some unsavory characters in the government, but the moderates arguably had the upper hand.

Just a day after Ethiopian troops left Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union government they ousted had already retaken abandoned checkpoint posts. This morning, Islamic insurgents fired on the Presidential palace. Various insurgent groups now control all but a few bits and pieces of the country. Amid all this chaos, the transitional government who is supposedly in charge is bickering its way into irrelevance.

Ethiopian troops have held together a violent status quo for the last two years. You can’t help ask the question: now as they go, what on earth is going to happen? I’ve written my own pessimistic prediction. So here’s the unlikely upside, an idea I owe to conversations with analysts over the last few months.

In many ways, Ethiopia’s presence has made Somalia worse, not better. Before the 2006 invasion, the Islamic Courts Union had some measure of control over the country. Yes, there were some unsavory characters in the government, but the moderates arguably had the upper hand.

No longer. When Ethiopia came in, sensible moderates stepped off the political stage, hoping to positions themselves well for any future transitional governments. The armed youth movement al Shabab was not so cautious and took the opportunity to impose “order” at the point of a gun all over the country. Nothing emboldens a well-armed insurgency like fighting an unpopular occupying enemy.

As Ethiopia leaves, the insurgency will lose its common enemy. Its popularity and very integrity might fracture. If al Shabab is anything like rebel groups I’ve reported on, their internal wars are as dramatic as their external street fighting. They often bring themselves down without any help at all. And when an official terrorist organization disintegrates, that’s usually a good thing.

This scenario is what many — particularly in the international community — are likely praying for. But if it does go that way, there will be a long and violent intermediary period of disintegration. Well armed as al Shabab and all its factions are, they’re not likely to go down before all their rounds are fired.

The temptation will be for the international community to step in, freezing the disintegration mid-way in order to save civilian lives — not to mention combat lawless piracy on the seas. The United States has already circulated a UN Security Council resolution draft that hopes to do just that, boosting the African Union peacekeeping force to maintain the status quo. That’s either a very good idea (to save lives) or a very costly way of delaying the inevitable (Somalia’s various factions fighting it out). I’ll leave that for you to judge.

ABDURASHID ABUKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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