East African officials are considering having Ethiopian troops join the war in Somalia to create a third front against al-Qaida linked insurgents, officials said Friday, as around 400 Kenyan soldiers moved to the border to push toward a key Somali town.
International interest in famine-hit, war-ravaged Somalia is at the highest it has been for a generation, since U.S. troops arrived in 1992 to help safeguard humanitarian shipments following the collapse of the Somali government. U.S. involvement, and that of a subsequent U.N. mission, ended in 1994 after Somali fighters shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters, killing 18 American servicemen.
Now there's another build up of international forces, and another famine. But it's not clear that those intervening in the war have a plan to effectively govern any territory they take. Many analysts say the insurgency only flourishes because of corruption and abuses by the government.
"Taking towns is the easy part. Then you have to hold them and provide security and make them nice places to live," said Roger Middleton, a Somalia expert at London-based think tank Chatham House. "Islamist organizations have been defeated militarily quite a few times but the hardcore leadership always comes back because they are one of the few people with a political vision that goes beyond their clan or subclan."
Kenyan troops pushed across the border with Somalia into insurgent territory in the south last month, following a string of attacks by Somali gunmen on Kenyan soil. That same month, 9,000 African Union peacekeepers supporting the weak U.N.-backed government pushed insurgents out of the last district they held in Mogadishu, though pockets of fighters remain.
If Ethiopian troops cross into Somalia in substantial numbers, it would further stretch the Islamist al-Shabab militia by opening a third front. But it could also hand the Islamists a propaganda victory because Ethiopian forces are wildly unpopular in Somalia.
Al-Shabab was born of the remnants of the Islamic Courts Union, which seized control of much of southern Somalia in 2006 by clamping down on abusive warlords and using Islam to unite warring clans.
But the Ethiopians worried the Islamists had designs on Ethiopian territory that is ethnically Somali and the U.S. was concerned the Somali Islamists were harboring terrorists. The Ethiopians entered the country at the end of 2006 and drove the Islamists from power.
In response, the Islamists launched an insurgent campaign of bombings and guerrilla attacks. Residents say the Ethiopians reacted by mortaring civilian neighborhoods and shooting wildly whenever they were attacked.
The Ethiopians left in 2009 as part of a deal that established the current African Union force and brought President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed into power. Ahmed was a former Islamist leader who made his name fighting the Ethiopians.
Spokesmen for the African Union and Kenyan military said Ethiopia's possible role in the conflict is still being discussed, but declined to rule out an Ethiopian intervention.
"The issue is, after Kenya has gone in, how does the mission proceed?" said Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the spokesman for the AU force in Somalia. There had been meetings this week in the Ethiopian capital, he said, where East African leaders had discussed greater regional involvement in Somalia by countries that included Ethiopia.
Ethiopian intervention in Somalia was also allowed under regional agreements, a Kenyan military spokesman said.
"Ethiopia is supposed to build (military) capacity in Somalia. That could apply to cross-border operations," said Maj. Emmanuel Chirchir.
Ethiopian officials could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday.
Ethiopian troops frequently make small incursions across the border and support friendly Somalia militias. Ethiopian troops and Somali government troops carried out joint exercises in the Somali town of Belet Weyne, near the border.
If Ethiopia does send substantial numbers of troops, it could help energize al-Shabab, which has been weakened by infighting and a famine in its southern strongholds, said Middleton.
"Ethiopia is the number one boogeyman in Somalia," he said. An intervention "could help feed a narrative of foreign invasion and Christian invasion."
Burundi and Uganda _ the two countries contributing troops to the AU force _ are predominantly Christian, as is Kenya. Ethiopia has large numbers of Christians and Muslims. Somalia is almost entirely Muslim.
Kenyan troops have not faced any significant resistance in Somalia, but they might be about to begin their first serious fight.
A local official said around 400 Kenyan soldiers arrived Friday morning in the Kenyan border town of Liboi along with helicopters, light aircraft and other equipment. He says they were sent to help take Afmadow, a Somali town that has been heavily fortified by al-Qaida-linked insurgents.
Afmadow is on the way to the port city of Kismayo, which provides the bulk of al-Shabab's revenues.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss military operations.
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