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Issue 521/ 21st - 27th Jan 2012
The 'Deadly Dilemma' In The Horn Of Africa
By Brian Stewart
At the very heart of Somalia's ongoing crisis of famine and anarchy lies what I've come to think of as the Deadly Dilemma, which few aid workers or diplomats are willing to discuss openly.
The dilemma is this: A war of intervention in Somalia, to end the nation's chronic lawlessness will hamper the existing humanitarian efforts to feed the starving. But what if that is the only way to end decades of human catastrophe there?
Going a step further, what if it is only armed intervention by fellow African nations that can end the growing threat of terrorism, piracy and jihad now threatening the whole Horn of Africa? Will they step up to the job?
So far, nothing else has worked in the over 20 years since Somalia collapsed into chaos.
Instability there has helped turn the current food crisis effecting the Horn nations of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti into the worst humanitarian disaster of this new century, killing perhaps 100,000 and leaving 13 million still in desperate need of food, shelter and medical relief.
What's more, there is a feeling of hopelessness, which has become deadly in itself as much of the world has grown weary of reacting to the repeated crises in the area and has turned its back on the sheer horror of Somalia.
Reign of terror
So here is the nub of our problem: if things just continue the way they are we surely risk heading into one giant humanitarian crisis after another, which will ensure ever-decreasing levels of generosity.
That would be unjust surely, not only for the totally impoverished small farmers and herders caught up in the massive droughts, but also for both Kenya and Ethiopia, which have seen their own promising development hampered by the turmoil and refugees bursting over their borders from Somalia.
Even more destabilizing, both Kenya and Ethiopia have been dealing with raids by the extremist al-Shabaab militia, which is allied with al-Qaeda and which controls much of central and south Somalia.
For predominantly Christian Ethiopia, albeit with a very large Muslim population, having a jihadist movement on your doorstep is a profoundly dangerous situation.
But all of us need be alarmed by this set of circumstances.
For years international agencies have expressed their concerns, to little avail, over al-Shabaab's reign of terror. According to the UN the militant group is now increasingly seizing women and girls as sex slaves, signs that the movement has lost all restraint.
For a time, even basic food aid for civilians was being blocked as al-Shabaab refused to deal with some international groups.
But vocal complaints inside Somalia have achieved virtually nothing.
Al-Shabaab on its heels?
This stalemate explains, in part, why both Kenya and Ethiopia launched separate armed offensives into Somalia in the last months to attempt to destroy the al-Shabaab regime. It is one of the most important, if under-covered, conflicts in the world today.
Both invasions are also designed to help Somalia's weak transitional government, which only recently showed its first sign of standing up to al-Shabaab by enlisting the support of 9,000 African Union soldiers to help clear the jihadists out of the capital and port of Mogadishu.
We are seeing a three-pronged attack. Kenyan tanks and air raiders from the south and west, Ethiopian armour from the northwest and a limited advance by Somali government soldiers alongside AU troops from the eastern coast.
For the first time, al-Shabaab seems shaken. Not only by the attacks but by the unexpectedly warm greetings being given to Kenyan and Ethiopian troops.
Well-trained Ethiopian soldiers easily scattered the jihadists trying to defend the key hub and market town of Beledweyne in central Somalia.
Kenyan ground forces, which started incursions in October, pushed al-Shabaab guerrillas back from its borders and are now closing in on the port of Kismayo in the south, part of a vital supply route for al-Shabaab arms and funds. Kenyan jets meanwhile have bombed al-Shabaab bases.
Both U.S. and French special forces are believed to be helping with guidance and intelligence, while keeping low profiles (a background role President Barack Obama appears to prefer these days).
But this is not all one way. Jihadist cells have launched grenade attacks inside Kenya, killing seven people just last week and putting much of that country on a tense alert.
A cry for help
Armed action, of course, carries enormous risk.
Aid workers have warned that military intervention will only make a ghastly situation worse, but so far at least, UN aid chief Mark Bowden says the actions have "not really had an impact."
Still, many people have raised the obvious question about the world's so-called responsibility to protect.
If it is all right for the UN to back air raids in Libya to save civilians, not to mention the similar action over Kosovo in 1999, then why is it impossible to use force to save Somalia's people from what they are going through?
There is history here of course. We remember the (Black Hawk down) fiasco in 1993 when UN and U.S. forces had to pull out of their armed support of relief efforts because of ferocious urban resistance by Somali warlords.
Then there was Ethiopia's previous incursion in 2006 against a different jihadist regime that threatened its borders. The Ethiopians took Mogadishu easily enough, but they were eventually forced to withdraw, a retreat that helped the rise of al-Shabaab.
This time, the Kenyan and Ethiopian commanders stress they are anxious to avoid any quagmires and are handing control over to Somalia's transitional government as they advance.
Both Kenya and Ethiopia are suspected by other African nations of having hidden territorial ambitions regarding Somalia, a chronic suspicion that so often collapses any co-operation in this region.
But the only hope that military intervention might work is if these nations, along with the pathetically under-strength AU troops from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti, can finally shame the whole continent into some kind of joint action.
All these nations agree that non-African intervention would be unhelpful, which leaves any plan to de-fuse Somalia up to a continent that has so far been unwilling to deal with its problems in any but the most limited ways.
Kenya and Ethiopia, feeling their very futures are being undermined by Somalia, have clearly decided they have no option but to act, in the hope that force might finally wake up their fellow African leaders who have so far been asleep to the diplomatic cries for help.