Another US War in the Horn of Africa

Imperialist confrontation is hotting Up

Imperialist competition and confrontation is hotting up. Wherever you look, where there are huge energy or mineral resources there are clashes now hidden, now open, not only between the Great Powers, but also between their smaller surrogates. From Eastern Europe to Afghanistan, from Azerbaijan to Sakhalin Island there are struggles over oil and gas rights between the major powers backing their leading companies. The blackmailing of Shell by the Putin Government into giving shares in Sakhalin oil was quickly followed by the Russian demand for a 200% increase in payments for gas to Belarus. (1)

As the article on Lebanon in this issue explains, China and Russia are also acting in cahoots to attempt to drive the US from Central Asia. Not to be outdone, the US and its Western European allies have promoted oil pipelines from Azerbaijan to bring Caspian oil to the Mediterranean (see Revolutionary Perspectives 34, 36 and 37).

Also as part of this drama, Africa is the scene of some of the more blatant atrocities committed by those who are acting under the inexorable laws of imperialism. As we reported in our last issue, the war in Darfur in the Sudan may have local grievances at its root, but it is stoked up and allowed to play itself out through either the actions or the malign neglect of the Great Powers who hope to benefit from it. Rape, murder, starvation and genocide do not move the Great Powers to act because they are perfectly happy to see these as “unfortunate by-products” of a necessary struggle for energy resources and strategic positions. As we also demonstrated in our last issue, the appearance of China on the African stage in the last decade (2) has only upped the stakes for the USA and the EU, who were used to running the show themselves.

The Ethiopian Invasion of Somalia

All of these features can be seen in the current situation in Somalia. On December 24th 2006, the Ethiopian Army sent 150 000 more troops into Somalia, ostensibly in support of the so-called Transitional Government. The declared casus belli was that the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) had announced that they wanted to create a Greater Somalia, which would have taken in the Muslim-populated Ogaden (a desert region over which Somalia and Ethiopia fought wars in 1964 and 1977, each with the backing of different imperialist powers). This was no empty threat by the UIC, since the Ogaden is populated by Somali Muslims and they support an Ogaden National liberation Front there. However, the real and immediate reason for the Ethiopian invasion was that the UIC had driven the Transitional Government out of Mogadishu in the summer, and were now intent on removing its last vestiges of power by attacking its one foothold in Baidoa. The Transitional Government was set up by a UN-brokered peace accord to end the civil war that began with the fall of the Siad Barre regime in 1991. It was supposed to put an end to the warlordism and tribalism which Barre’s regime had held in check for two decades. Instead, it is largely a collection of just such tribal warlords, the most powerful of whom, like the President Abdullahi Yusuf, are based in Addis Ababa. Under the Transitional Government the state virtually collapsed into gangsterism. When the UIC - backed by weapons and military training from Eritrea - attacked Mogadishu there was an uprising against the Transitional Government and it was forced to flee to Baidoa. Despite its name, the UIC is not a united Islamic organisation, but the fact that it instituted Sharia Law, and that it was backed by Eritrea, immediately made it the target of both the Ethiopians and the US.

The Ethiopians lost a war to their smaller neighbour, Eritrea (which only gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993), and the Eritreans have since denied Ethiopia access to the Red Sea. For this reason alone, Ethiopia could not afford to have a hostile regime ruling Somalia. On top of this, the regime of Meles Zenawi has become increasingly brutal and dictatorial. In May 2005 it was re-elected amongst widespread charges of fraud. The response was to kill nearly 200 protestors and arrest hundreds of others. A foreign war helps to silence internal dissent and with US support the chances of some kind of victory seemed possible.

“A Reckless US Proxy War”

For the US, the failure of their policy in Somalia has been long-term and well-publicised. Few have forgotten the sight of the shooting down of two Black Hawk helicopters by rocket-propelled grenades in Mogadishu or the sight of the bodies of some of the 18 US troops killed in “the Battle of Mogadishu” being dragged through the streets. The Clinton Administration immediately pulled out of Somalia and the US has sought to influence events by supplying money and weapons to the warlords who drove them out, on the grounds that their intelligence reports suggest that Al-Qaeda moved into Somalia after 1993.

This policy has clearly failed but, like so many other holes US policy has dug for itself, it can only keep on digging. The Union of Islamic Courts is mainly dominated by the Sufi clergy of Somalia, but it gets help wherever it can get it, including from the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia (who finance Islamic extremism all over the world but whose oil possessions seem to make them immune from being indicted by the US). However, portraying the Islamic Courts as straightforward tools of Al-Qaeda was only part of the preparation for the invasion by Ethiopian troops. The final decision for the invasion was almost certainly taken in December 2006, when General John Abizaid, now head of the US military in Iraq, flew into Addis Ababa, but the plan was prepared in the months before that. The Ethiopians have been supplied for years with US military aid to the tune of $20 million and there are at least 100 US military “advisors” in the country. It is now clear that the air cover for the Ethiopian offensive was not supplied by the Ethiopian airforce but by the US flying out of Djibouti and Puntland (an autonomous region of Somalia), where it has bases. In the final stages, it used fixed wing AC 130S operating from US aircraft carriers in the Indian Ocean to bomb Ras Komboni claiming it was full of Al-Qaeda supporters. (3)

The US claimed that this also included those who had carried out the bombing of its embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam when 257 were killed. In fact, it is the usual “war against terror” rhetoric of justification which is appreciatively parroted by the Transitional Government and the Ethiopians alike. And just to make sure everyone is playing the same role in this tragedy an audio tape purporting to come from the Al-Qaeda Number Two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is circulating calling for a “jihad” of the Somali people against the “crusaders”.

This invasion also highlights how the UN is now only operative if it acts according to US interests. Ignoring its own resolution of eighteen months ago that no foreign power should get involved in Somalia, it has meekly voted to allow the invasion to “restore peace and stability” just at a time when the expulsion of the warlords from Mogadishu had brought the calmest situation in 16 years. As a former UN Ambassador to Iraq put it:

...the UN Security Council, in another craven act which will further cement its reputation as an anti-Muslim body, bowed to American and British pressure to authorise a regional peacekeeping force to enter Somalia to protect the Transitional Government.

He is also not slow to point out that this invasion has nothing to do with peacekeeping since there are many more material motives.

As in Iraq in 2003, the United States has cast this as a war to curtail terrorism but its real goal is to obtain a direct foothold in a highly strategic region by establishing a client regime there. The Horn of Africa is newly oil-rich, and lies just miles from Saudi Arabia, overlooking the passage of large numbers of tankers and warships through the Red Sea. (4)

Such material interests explain why imperialism not only cannot bring anything but the most limited of peace processes, but is destined to increase the number of conflicts around the globe. With Somali refugees (armed with AK-47S) in Ethiopia and Kenya, with Eritrea considering how to help the Islamic Courts back to power and with the distinct possibility that the Somali population itself could start to wage a guerrilla war against the Ethiopian invader, the dangers are all too clear. There is some newspaper talk of the US seeking to bring the Sufis in the Islamic Courts (like Sheikh Sherrif Ahmed) (5) to some deal with the warlords of the Transitional Government, but the warlords themselves see no reason for sharing power with anyone, now the Ethiopian army has put them back in Mogadishu.

Further misery awaits the long-suffering Somalis, not to mention those in neighbouring countries and there are no “good guys” in this story. In this depressingly predictable situation, workers have to condemn all sides as imperialist murderers. In such a circumstance, it seems impossible for any proletarian response to develop. The situation in the Horn of Africa only underlines the enormous task facing the world working class, especially those who live in the most powerful states. Until we paralyse and then overthrow the capitalist ruling class then there will be many more deaths in places like Somalia. Such a day of reckoning may seem a long way off, but in a world faced with an enormous economic crisis which only survives through the amassing of debts things can certainly change quickly. The US ruling class are acutely aware of this since it is to protect their economy from the debts that it has incurred (by printing dollars for others to hold) that it engages in one “reckless” war after another.


(1) See also Gas Follows Oil and Gas at the Centre of Imperialist Manoeuvring in Revolutionary Perspectives 39.

(2) At the end of 2006, Chinese trade with Africa stood at $50 billion and it is financing 800 projects in 49 out of the 55 African countries. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia last year to secure oil and trade deals. China not only offers more generous financial support that the EU and US, but the projects are actually carried out by Chinese labour shipped in for the task. In 2000, China created a Forum for Chinese African Cooperation. At its latest summit in November 2006, it demonstrated it intended to strengthen its penetration of Africa when it cancelled 10 billion yuan (about $1 billion) of the debt of the 31 countries in the Forum.

(3) The US claims that they killed Fazul Abdullah Mohammed who was accused of the 1998 bombings. In fact there is some doubt about this. According to The Independent (11th January 2007), the US and Ethiopian gunships simply attacked nomadic Somali herdsmen killing thirty of them. They were identified because they lit fires at night as they camped, but this has not stopped the US claiming that they were UIC members fleeing towards the Kenyan border.

(4) Salim Lone is now a journalist in Kenya but his article “In Somalia, a reckless US proxy war” was widely syndicated. This version was in the International Herald Tribune.

(5) According to The Financial Times, Michael Rassenberger, the US Ambassador in Kenya met the Sheikh, calling him “moderate”.

(6) See the article on the Lebanon in this issue for a longer explanation of this point.

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