Ethiopian Troops in Somalia Join AMISOM

I was reading the news today and noticed “Kevin Knodell in War is Boring” says “Ethiopian Troops Have Returned to Somalia—That’s Not a Good Thing

This move was surprising—perhaps even shocking—as Ethiopia has a long and brutal history with Somalia in the form of border wars, invasions and accusations of torture, rape and executions.

There’s also a fear this has the potential to undo everything AMISOM has accomplished.

Well, I disagree with both; the move is not surprising and is not likely to undo everything. As a long-time student of the Horn of Africa, I am very intrigued by these conclusions. The headline seems overly confident and also pessimistic on the long-standing complicated border-conflict scenario that includes an ongoing rebellion and fractured state with external pressures.

Unfortunately I do not have time to rebut the entire article. Note in 2008 I mentioned how US foreign policy pushed an Ethiopian offensive into Somalia. Then I recommended in 2009, in a post called “Somalia Begs for Invasion,” that an AU-led stabilization force would be the best option to reduce regional conflict and guide foreign influences. AMISOM is the African Union Mission in Somalia. Almost six years later, I will take this opportunity to provide some analysis of how things are shaping up:

Recent Somali depictions of the conflict paint Ethiopia as brutal and meddling in their affairs. This is a sign of a strengthening sense of state and sovereignty by the Somalis; it also is to be expected. Somalia and Ethiopia both tend to trade harsh words at a high level. The fact is Somalia still is actually quite fractured and Ethiopia has many people sympathetic to Somali statehood.

On the one hand if you believe in realpolitik, then you might say this means Ethiopia will continue to destabilize Somalia for its own benefit, whatever that might be. In South Africa the destabilization of its neighbors was to prevent an uprising/invasion against Apartheid. What would Ethiopia’s reason be for weakening Somalia? This is not clear. Although I have written before why the U.S. wants to keep Somalia from forming sovereignty — to allow for “legal” elimination of high-value targets (e.g. terrorists). The more sovereignty Somalia establishes, the more difficult it becomes for the U.S. to ignore human and state rights against intervention.

On the other hand if you believe Ethiopia is worried about the impact to them from a destabilized neighboring state, then you might say it will drive an agenda (again perhaps influenced by U.S. policy) as I wrote about before here. Kenya has a very strong and active intervention policy we can observe.

Sending troops indicates Ethiopia could intend taking an active role in determining the fractured Somalia’s fate in the above two ways. However, the Horn of Africa is not so easily parsed into such neat boxes of one state intervening in another. The key to understanding this latest troop deployment is most likely related to Ethiopian domestic issues; an ongoing conflict over the Ogaden region within Ethiopia.

As I have written about before here, Ethiopia is cracking down on dissent and struggling to control the ONLF rebel group. In other words the move by Ethiopia to add troops to AMISOM may actually be a concern over a majority population in conflict with a minority in control; ethnic and political disputes. Operations/camps located across the border with Somalia would therefore drive Ethiopia to want greater access to defeat opposition. The Ogaden area has been in dispute for a very long time, particularly in 1948, 1964 and 1977, as well as 1996. Each of these events is rich and complex on their own; most relevant to the recent news is that fact Ethiopia invaded in 1996. They sent their military into areas of SW Somalia, on the border with the Ogaden, called Gedo, Bay and Bakool.

Where will the new Ethiopian troops joining AMISOM be stationed? Gedo, Bay and Bakool.

What I’m guessing, therefore, is that Ethiopia has managed to get international backing to put monitors in Somali territory to deal with Ogaden rebels attacking Ethiopia. Instead of invading, they have agreed to help “stabilize” the region while actually looking for anti-Ethiopian rebels. This also is about fighting with al Shabaab, of course, who also are anti-Ethiopian. And on that note it is important to realize that Ethiopia’s military is backing many of the Somali regions already fighting against al Shabaab. So this deployment is not altogether unusual in terms of support. It is unusual in that it may achieve the objectives of 1996 without declaration of war or unauthorized border crossing.

Ethiopian AMISOM troops do not seem entirely out of place. Calling it “not a good thing” is taking an odd position on a complex topic. The specific location of their assignment speaks to a complex and long-time brewing relationship between the two countries, and an Ethiopian internal dispute between Tigrayan leadership and Oromo rebels. This parallels action by Turkey to cross into northern Iraq, for example, to deal with Kurdish rebels. Note that Cheney specifically told Turkey that he wanted them to police northern Iraq. Thus, Ethiopian policing of a border area with rebel activity is not entirely unexpected. And because it’s part of an international effort instead of unilateral declaration of war…well, perhaps there’s some hope for AU control and even increased humanitarian oversight of the disputes. That is probably too optimistic, but AMISOM does claim to have oversight of the Ethiopian forces; better than if Ethiopia simply invaded again.

One final thought. Some want to depict the conflict as an Islamic Somali state against a Christian Ethiopia. The fact is Ethiopia has a largely Islamic population and the Ethiopian Army is led by an Islamic General who himself used to lead a Tigrayan rebel group (TPLF). Depicting all Somalis as opposed to an Ethiopian military presence or support is incorrect. Many Somalis have asked for Ethiopian intervention. Likewise, depicting this along religious lines also is incorrect.

Updated to add: Paul Williams suggested reading the “Providing for Peacekeeping” report by Solomon Ayele Dersso, from the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa Office.
A “Rationale’s for Contributing” section is on page three:

  • Political
  • Economic
  • Security
  • Institutional
  • Normative

A “Barriers to Contributing” section is on page four:

  • Alternative institutional preferences for crisis management
  • Alternative political or strategic priorities
  • Resistance in the military
  • Lack of fit with legislative, procurement and operational timelines

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