The Roots of Emerging Battle in Horn of Africa

Today's airstrikes on two Somali airports could mark the beginning of a fourth war between Ethiopia and Somalia — one that could draw neighboring countries into the fight. Herman Cohen, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, talks with Robert Siegel about the roots of the emerging conflict in the Horn of Africa.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And now for some background and context to this conflict, we're joined by former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Herman Cohen. Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. HERMAN COHEN (Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs): Thank you.

SIEGEL: First we've heard Gwen and all the reporters there talk about the Islamic Courts Union. What is the Islamic Courts Union?

Mr. COHEN: In 1991, the central government of Somalia disappeared. It fell into total anarchy. Now each of the neighborhoods in Somalia had to cope with this vacuum and they established these Islamic Courts to get a little bit of justice, to get a little bit of healthcare and education.

And this year they were given arms by outside forces and they were able to defeat these warlords who were actually dominating these areas, who were exacting ransom, who were establishing roadblocks, who were taking taxes and really hurting the people very badly. So they were suddenly liberating the city of Mogadishu.

SIEGEL: This is an indigenous movement?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah. Totally homegrown. Totally homegrown.

SIEGEL: And the transitional government, I gather, doesn't control much of Somalia. Who is it? Who are the people who run the country?

Mr. COHEN: Well, about four years ago everyone was so exasperated by the absence of a central government that the international community tried to get various groups together to establish some sort of consensus and these were the warlords, the elders, the religious leaders. And two years ago, they actually reached a consensus and established what they call a transitional federal government.

Unfortunately, this transitional federal government was really unable to take control of Somalia because the various warlords were asking for bribes and all sorts of power and they never could reach an agreement. So instead of establishing themselves in Mogadishu, the capital, they established themselves in Baidoa, a provincial city near the Ethiopian border. But they never really controlled anything.

SIEGEL: Do you think the Islamic Courts Union has been taken over by really militant Islamists, Jihadists?

Mr. COHEN: I didn't at the beginning last July, but when I heard the Islamic Courts Union say all Islamists from the Middle East should come and join us, I am now convinced that they have been taken over by the Jihadists.

SIEGEL: So there's been a real change there?

Mr. COHEN: Yeah, definitely.

SIEGEL: We're talking about this today because of the Ethiopian airstrikes. What is Ethiopia's interest in all this?

Mr. COHEN: Well, Ethiopia's had wars with Somalia over the last 30 years and the Somalis have always said that the people in Southeastern Ethiopia, who are mainly Somali speakers, really belong as part of Somalia. It's called Somali irredentism. And the people living in those areas in Ethiopia do not like the Ethiopian government. They feel repressed. They feel discriminated against and they'd like to get out of Ethiopia. And the Ethiopians say no, this is our territory, we have vital supply lines there. We will not give it up.

And they've already fought three wars. Now this, you can say, is the beginning of the fourth war for Southeastern Ethiopia, which is called the Ogaden.

SIEGEL: Where does the United States stand in all this? And does the U.S. play a role or not play a role that it should be playing? What are we doing?

Mr. COHEN: Well, the United States view of the Horn has been colored mainly by the war on terror, and if you see the Horn as being very close to the Middle East and when we have these two incidents in Nairobi and Dar El-Salam, where Islamic terrorists blew up our embassies, we've been very focused on that and the U.S. government believes that the terrorists who did these acts have taken refuge in Somalia.

So when we saw the Islamic Courts taken over we said well, they're protecting these terrorists. So this was a very kind of a narrow view of things.

SIEGEL: Rhyming with Taliban in Afghanistan.

Mr. COHEN: Exactly, yes. Exactly.

SIEGEL: The past on the Horn of Africa has been terrible. Do we stand the risk of returning to the days of the 1990s right now when you see what's happening between Somalia and Ethiopia?

Mr. COHEN: I think we do, because of the Eritreans, who are, I would call, the regional destablilizers. They were partly responsible for the war in Darfur. Now they're encouraging war against Ethiopia. So I think they would like to see general war.

The Islamists feel that the only way they can stay in power in Somalia or to enhance their power is to make this an Islamic war and bring in Islamists from the outside. The Ethiopians are quite correctly afraid of this trend and they want to do everything possible and they have enormous power in that region. They have the only air force. They have major armaments. So I'm afraid that this really could sink into a big conflict.

SIEGEL: It sounds like a very volatile mix that you're describing.

Mr. COHEN: Definitely, yes.

SIEGEL: Former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ambassador Herman Cohen. Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. COHEN: You're most welcome.

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