Reprinted from Dispatches From The Edge
The systematic murder of 147 Kenyan university students by members of the Somalia-based Shabab organization on April 2 is raising an uncomfortable question: was the massacre an unintentional blowback from U.S. anti-terrorism strategy in the region? And were the killers forged by an ill-advised American supported Ethiopian invasion that transformed the radical Islamic organization from a marginal player into a major force?
As Kenyans were mourning their dead, opposition figures were openly opposing Kenya's occupation of southern Somalia and bringing into question Washington's blueprint for fighting terrorism: drones, Special Forces, and regional proxies.
Speaking in the port of Mombasa, former prime minister and opposition leader Raila Odinga called for the withdrawal of Kenyan troops, as did the Speaker of the National Assembly, Justin Muturi. Speaking at the funeral for one of the victims, Senator James Orengo said, "We know very well the consequences of a war of occupation. We must withdraw our troops from Somalia to end this."
Absent from most of the mainstream American media was an examination of exactly what role the U.S. has played in Somalia over the past decade, and how Washington has helped create the current crisis.
A little history.
When military dictator Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991, Somalia fell into the chaos of clan warfare, sparking off a U.S. military intervention in 1992. While billed as a "humanitarian intervention," the Americans aggressively sought to suppress the plague of warlords that had turned the nation's capital, Mogadishu, into a shattered ruin. But the expedition derailed in 1993 after 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis were killed in the infamous Black Hawk Down incident. The U.S. withdrew the following year.
Which doesn't mean the U.S. went away, or that it didn't apply a new strategy for Africa, one designed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. The genesis of that plan came from James Carafano, a West Point graduate and head of Heritage's foreign policy section, and Nile Gardiner, director of the think tank's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, who drew up a document entitled "U.S. Military Assistance for Africa: A Better Solution."
The strategy called for the creation of a U.S. military command for Africa, a focus on terrorism, and direct military intervention using air power and naval forces. The authors argue against putting U.S. troops on the ground, instead enlisting those of allies. Those recommendations were adopted by the Bush administration -- and later the Obama administration -- lock, stock and barrel. African Command (Africom) was created, as along with the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative, to train troops in 16 nations that border the vast area embraced by world's biggest desert.
While targeting "terrorism" is the strategy's public face, Carafano and Gardiner argue that U.S. "vital interests" are involved on the continent, "With its vast natural and mineral resources," Africa, say the two scholars, "remains important to the West, as it has been for hundreds of years, and its geostrategic significance is likely to rise in the 21st century."
A major rationale behind the strategy is to checkmate Chinese influence in Africa and short circuit Beijing's search for raw materials. China gets about one third of its oil from Africa, plus platinum, copper, timber and iron ore.
The new policy made its debut in Somalia when the U.S. actively aided Ethiopia's 2006 invasion to support the unpopular and isolated the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia (TFGS). The invasion overthrew the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which had brought Somalia its first stable government in 15 years.
The ICU was a coalition of Islamic organizations that included a small group calling itself the "Shabab," Arabic for "Youth." While the ICU was Islamic in ideology, it was more moderate than the Shabab. The ICU also had more support than the TFGS, because it had routed the clan warlords who had dominated Somalia since 1991.
However, those warlords -- united in an organization incongruously called the "Alliance for Restoration of Peace and Counter-terrorism" -- were strongly supported by the U.S. CIA. Claiming that the ICU was linked to Al-Qaeda, Washington leaned on Ethiopia to invade. When they did, U.S. Special Forces based in Djibouti accompanied them and gave them intelligence and equipment. The U.S. Navy shelled a town in Southern Somalia, killing, according to Oxfam and the United Nations, 70 civilians and wounding more than 100. While the New York Times claims that U.S. support for the invasion was "covert," it was anything but.
The powerful Ethiopian Army crushed the ICU, but the brutality of the occupation that followed fired up a resistance movement led by the Shabab. Given that Ethiopians and Somalians are traditional enemies, and that the former is largely Christian, the latter overwhelmingly Muslim, one wonders what Washington was thinking when it backed the invasion.
It was the 2006 Ethiopian-U.S. invasion that turned the Shabab into a major player, just as the invasion of Iraq fueled the creation of, first, Al-Qaeda and then the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria.
The Shabab quickly took over most of southern and central Somalia, although their brutality and strict interpretation of Islam eventually alienated them from much of the population. However, the one thing that Somalians could unite around was expelling the Ethiopians, and after two years of ambushes, roadside bombs and suicide vests, Addis Abba withdrew most its forces.