Is Somalia in Ethiopian Army's crosshairs again?
Somalis near the border with Ethiopia say that country's troops have crossed over, raising speculation of another battle with the militant Islamists closing in on Somalia's government.
Johannesburg, South Africa
Two years ago, they came, they saw, they killed some Somali Islamists. Late last year, they left.Skip to next paragraph
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For the record, the Ethiopian government denies that it has troops inside Somali territory, and claims it has largely stayed out of Somali territory since it pulled back its troops in mid-December 2008.
Yet reports from the area surrounding Beletweyne (near the border) have been persistent, both of Ethiopian checkpoints and entrenchments 20 kilometers inside the Somali border, near the town of Kalabeyr. Now, the question seems to be not whether Ethiopian troops are there, but why they are there and how long they plan to stay.
"Ethiopia does go in and out of Somali territory, but with reports of the impending collapse of the Somali government by Islamist militias, I gather that Ethiopia would keep a close eye on matters," says Iqbal Jhazbhay, an expert on Somali politics at the University of South Africa in Tshwane, formerly known as Pretoria. "An intervention now allows Ethiopia to follow their interests to insure that nobody comes to power who has an irredentist agenda, who would want to claim the Ogaden" region of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia's Ogaden region is a desert area inhabited mostly by ethnic Somalis. The two countries have fought bitter wars over the region and many Somalis still dream of taking back the Ogaden from Ethiopia, thus reuniting "Greater Somalia." Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, the spiritual leader of the militant Islamists now threatening to take over the country from the moderate Islamist government, is well known to Ethiopia's government for his "Greater Somalia" agenda.
How Ethiopia's last intervention went
Ethiopia's previous intervention came at a time of strong parallel interests by Ethiopia and the United States. Both nations saw the need for a robust Ethiopian military operation in Somalia as part of a broader war on terrorism. Members of the Bush administration linked the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which implemented sharia law during it's short-lived stint in control of the country in 2006, with Al Qaeda. But Ethiopia's interests were much more immediate and local – the UIC government, and particularly its former leader, Mr. Aweys, threatened to take away the Ogaden.
On paper, the Ethiopian intervention of 2006 was a rout. UIC fighters melted away in front of Ethiopia's 3,000-strong invasion force, and the UIC government fled into exile. But just like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the UIC reorganized into smaller units and began a long guerrilla war of attrition. By the time Ethiopia withdrew from Somalia in December 2008, it claims to have killed 2,000 to 3,000 Islamists. Human rights advocates say that as many as 16,000 civilians were also killed.
Although the current reported operation may be a temporary incursion, Ethiopia's national interest in preventing the rise of an aggressive Islamist government remains the same.