Secretary Clinton met this week with Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, President of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government. After meeting with Mr. Ahmed, Secretary Clinton offered the Transitional Federal Government assurances and rebuked Eritrea for supporting the Shabab Islamists battling the government currently. Secretary Clinton went so far as to warn Eritrea that the US would “take action” if it continued to support the Shabab.
Mr. Ahmed could be forgiven an ironic smile as Secretary Clinton spoke. Three years ago, as head of one of the factions of the Islamic Courts Union, Mr. Ahmed was receiving military aid from Eritrea as he fought first the then Transitional Federal Government and then Ethiopia. Now, Mr. Ahmed finds himself at the head of the Transitional Federal Government, backed by Ethiopia and facing former allies armed by Eritrea.
Secretary Clinton’s comments, and the US policy it represents, may be ill conceived. Eritrea should stop arming the Shabab. Unlike the Islamic Courts Union that preceded the Shabab, the Shabab do not appear to be a force able to unify and govern Somalia. The Shabab do not suffer any of the moderating influences that made the Islamic Courts Union palatable if not ideal. Still, the roles that Ethiopia and Eritrea play in the Horn of Africa are disconcerting. Ethiopia seeks regional hegemony; it would like to dominate Somalia and does not necessarily seek a stable, secure Somalia. Eritrea does not have a particular interest in an Islamists Somalia, but it does seek to confound Ethiopia in anyway possible. Ethiopia and Eritrea have been fighting a proxy war in Somalia for years. Eritrea providing arms to the Shabab, and the Islamic Courts Union before it, is an extension of that proxy war – as was, the Ethiopian invasion to unseat the ICU and to install the Transitional Federal Government.
The best outcome for the United States in Somalia is a cohesive, functioning state. The US should be wary of being captured by either of the two nations engaging in a proxy war inside Somalia. Exerting pressure on Eritrea to force them to stop arming the Shabab is one thing, underwriting Ethiopian irredentism is foolish.