How Washington created a new enemy

Washington has been playing with fire in Somalia, where its support for a warlord alliance has ended up boosting Islamic militias, which now hold the capital Mogadishu, analysts say.

Somalia has been torn by four months of fighting between the Islamists and an alliance of warlords who largely controlled the lawless state for the past 15 years.

The Joint Islamic Courts militias appeared on Thursday to have defeated the warlords after capturing their last two strongholds, and have vowed to rapidly open Sharia courts in the areas under its control.

Only a few months ago, this would have been impossible for lack of public support, experts said.

But the United States support for the warlord Alliance for the Restoration of Peace and Counterterrorism—hated by the population—sparked a wave of anti-American sentiment that massively boosted support for the Islamists, they said.

Washington has never publicly confirmed or denied its support for the alliance but US officials have told Agence France-Presse they provided the warlords with money and intelligence to help rein in “creeping Talibanisation” in Somalia.

“In reality, the Islamic courts are not strong. They are divided along traditional clan lines,” argued Roland Marchal, a Horn of Africa expert from France’s CNRS institute, who recently returned from a trip to Somalia.

“They benefited from this anti-Americanism,” said Marchal. “People who are absolute moderates in religious terms are fighting alongside the Islamic courts to get rid of the warlords.”

For US specialist Ken Menkhaus, a political science professor at the University of Davidson: “It’s not only that the US backed the wrong guys, it’s also that some of the US assistance was misused for a different agenda than the US had in mind.”

“The Americans had a fairly limited agenda in Mogadishu: it was to work through non-state partners to monitor and if possible apprehend a small number [three or four] of foreign al-Qaeda operatives in the city.”

“It was not the US government’s intent to see this alliance engage in a full-scale war against the union of Islamic courts,” he said.

“It’s plausible that the US assistance to these militias was misused: the militia leaders saw an opportunity to ...
strengthen their own political base vis-á-vis their principal rivals in the city: the Islamic courts.

“They hoped to harness US counter-terrorism assistance to their own political agenda, but they got whacked.”

Marchal also suggested Washington had committed a tactical error by supporting the warlord alliance—but for a different reason.

“The Americans’ mistake was to arm people who were already a spent force—and who had their own agenda,” he said.

“People I talked to [in Somalia] told me the alliance’s militiamen didn’t really put up a fight, because the war made no sense for them.

“They just took the American money and went home. It was a military collapse. That doesn’t mean the Islamic courts are strong—it just means their opponents have disintegrated.”

Two powerful warlords—Mohamed Afrah Qanyare and Issa Botan Alin—fled the town of Jowhar without fighting ahead of the Islamic assault on Tuesday.

Others who had holed up in Mogadishu defected to the Islamic courts’ side this week.

Karin von Hippel, a former United Nations expert on Somalia and member of the US Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says that by backing the warlords, Washington encouraged the Islamic courts to take up arms.

“If in recent weeks Somalis have been protesting alleged US interference in the fighting in Mogadishu, it is not only because of perceptions that the US government is anti-Islam but also because they don’t want the warlords to be any stronger than they already are,” she wrote in a recent newspaper column.

Meanwhile, Marchal said it was essential for the international community to open up channels of communication with the moderate elements in the Islamic courts as soon as possible.

“To cry that this is an al-Qaeda plot will only radicalise the population. We are busy creating an enemy that didn’t exist two months ago.”—AFP

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