News / Africa

Ethiopia's Anti Al-Shabab Push Sparks Concerns of a Backlash

Nico Colombant

While Ethiopia is getting a green light from Somalia's transitional government and neighboring countries to take part in large-scale military actions against Somalia's al-Shabab Islamic insurgents, analysts are concerned the new incursion could further deteriorate an already volatile situation.  

Six weeks after Kenya's government sent troops into southern Somalia to create buffer zones free of al-Shabab militants in that border region, Ethiopia's government is now being given the go ahead to open a front from its western borders, in the growing multilateral offensive against the Islamic rebels.

Diplomats in the region say hundreds of Ethiopian troops supported by armored vehicles and heavy artillery already appear to be headed toward the al-Shabab southern stronghold of Baidoa.

African peacekeepers were able to force the militants from their main positions in the southeastern capital Mogadishu earlier this year, even though terrorist bombings continue there, and attacks have also been carried out in other countries in the Horn of Africa as well.  Al-Shabab also still remains in control of large parts of southern and central Somalia.

Bronwyn Bruton, a Somalia expert with the Atlantic Council research center here in Washington, says she feels much more comfortable when professional soldiers from countries which are not neighbors take part in military operations inside Somalia, than when she sees soldiers from neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.

"When you have countries like them entering the fray, you get a worrisome tendency to think there is a free for all. It stirs up the possibilities of a real popular backlash of the kind that we saw back in 2007 and 2008," she said.

At the time, a U.S-backed Ethiopian incursion fought against the Islamic Courts Union. One of the ICU's former leaders, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, now heads the struggling U.S and United Nations-backed transitional government in Mogadishu.

Al-Shabab grew out of the fighting, amid widespread resentment in Somalia of what was viewed as a foreign occupation. Bruton says Ethiopian forces have continued covert operations along the border region in recent years, including helping anti al-Shabab militias, despite repeated Ethiopian denials.

Berhanu Mengistu, a professor from Old Dominion University, who took part in a recent conference in the United States concerning the Horn of Africa's response to al-Shabab, points out that Ethiopia clearly has the largest and most efficient military in the region.

But he says Ethiopia's renewed incursion, which closely follows Kenya's entrance, raises many questions. "What is the driving agenda? Was the agenda externally driven or is the agenda internally driven? Who benefits from these interventions and who does not?"

If the U.S. government is backing the strategy as part of anti-terrorism efforts, Mengistu says he would rather like to see more outside efforts to boost the legitimacy of governments across the Horn, including Somalia's and Ethiopia's.  He says the region is currently undergoing a downward spiral of violence which he sees as extremely worrisome.

U.S. officials recently acknowledged they are sending drone aircraft from Ethiopia to conduct surveillance in Somalia, and there have also been reported U.S. drone strikes against al-Qaida linked al-Shabab targets.  

A former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Tibor Nagy, currently working as a provost at Texas Tech University, says he would like to see more  support coming from the United States for the anti al-Shabab operations to quickly succeed.

"What I would like to see is much more U.S. engagement in a leadership capacity, by no means sending American forces in there, but the international troops there are still undermanned, they are undersupplied, despite the hardships from my perspective they have made remarkable progress," he said.

Nagy says he believes there has been renewed international interest in Somalia because of the devastating drought which hit the region this year and caused a famine in several al-Shabab controlled areas. Over the past 20 years, though, he feels foreign policy from all countries intervening in or trying to help Somalia, has been, in his words, a dismal failure.  That is the same amount of time Somalia has not had a functioning central government.

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