If Iraq is "the war" and Afghanistan is "the forgotten war," then what the heck is Somalia? The forgotten forgotten war? The war that dare not speak its name? I Can't Believe It's Not War?
That many of you will look at the phrase "U.S. invasion of Somalia" printed above and wonder what the heck I'm talking about is the problem in a nutshell. It's hard to come up with a name for a war that the majority of Americans don't even realize is happening.
In December 2006, the American and Ethiopian militaries invaded Somalia. Ethiopia is providing the bulk of the manpower. The United States is funding and arming Ethiopia's military, as well as providing intelligence, logistics, special forces and air strikes. It's a division of labor similar to what the United States used in 2001 in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance.
But this isn't 2001. Back then, the U.S. government touted the invasion as Operation Enduring Freedom, part one of the War On Terror™. The news media played along by making the invasion the biggest news story in the world for several weeks.
With Somalia '07, the situation is very different. The U.S. government is officially denying its participation in the invasion and the American news media are assisting in the cover-up by failing to devote significant resources to the story. With the exception of a couple of stories in the New York Times, news reports confirming the United States is a full partner with Ethiopia in the invasion have come largely from foreign media outlets.
The Bush administration probably likes it that way, because the war isn't going very well. Like Afghanistan and Iraq, the planning for the Somalia war has been heavy on military tactics and light on overall strategy.
The war started Dec. 24, when Ethiopian tanks and jets started pouring into Somalia. Within days, the targets of the invasion, the Union of Islamic Courts, were driven from Somalia's capital, Mogadishu. The United States and Ethiopia targeted the UIC because some of its leaders are thought to be sympathetic to al-Qaeda. The UIC came to power not because the people of Somalia were eager for al-Qaeda sympathizers to take over, but because the UIC offered a way out of the near-anarchy that has gripped Somalia for 15 years.
The extent of U.S. involvement started to become clear in January after the press began reporting U.S. air strikes in Somalia. In February, reports in the New York Times and the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper quoted anonymous U.S. officials saying the United States has been working with Ethiopia's military since before the invasion started. According to the Times, the American officials they quoted were willing to talk about U.S. involvement because they viewed the Somalia invasion as a relative success story.
Like President Bush donning Top Gun drag and speaking in front of a "Mission Accomplished" banner, U.S. officials bragging to the press were getting a bit ahead of themselves. After a few weeks of relative calm and no real plan on the part of the United States or Ethiopia to pass on power to a force that Somalis would find legitimate, the UIC re-emerged as an insurgent movement. The past few weeks have seen vicious fighting in Somalia, with one report describing Mogadishu as more violent in March than it has been at any time in the past 15 years.
The problem is that Ethiopia and the United States indeed drove the UIC from power, but did not kill or capture the movement's top leaders. The invasion by two predominantly Christian powers has inflamed religious nationalism in Somalia and, to an extent, legitimized and popularized the UIC with Somalis.
The ultimate losers in this are, not surprisingly, Somali people. It's unclear how many have died, but reports indicate that tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes, all for an invasion neither Ethiopia nor the United States appears to have planned for beyond the first week. There are multiple reports of atrocities against civilians by Ethiopian forces in Somalia, as well as reports that the United States is complicit in sending prisoners from Somalia to underground Ethiopian prisons for "questioning." Unfortunately, the reporting is scant because most news organizations seem to prefer that you not know this war is even happening.