Ethiopian troops are set to withdraw from Somalia by the end of the year and in doing so may hasten the collapse of the Western-backed transitional government and the victory of Islamist forces that took control of most of the country last year.
But Ethiopian troops have begun carrying out a major offensive against Islamist forces this week, raising questions about the withdrawal. If the Ethiopians stay, more violence is expected to ensue; if they leave, the government is expected to fall to hard-line militants.
In the balance hangs the future of a country that could become a new breeding ground for terrorists.
Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia at the tail end of 2006 to oust Islamists that had controlled most of the country for more than six months. Since then, the Ethiopians have been fighting ever-growing skirmishes with the Islamists, and their presence is now seen as furthering the conflict. Their withdrawal was finally decided during a "recent agreement between the more moderate members of the Somali opposition and the transitional government [that] was reached in Djibouti," Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports.
Ethiopia recently announced it would withdraw its troops by the end of this month, leaving Somalia's government vulnerable to insurgents, who have captured most of southern Somalia and even move freely in the capital.
But before they go, the Ethiopian troops now appear to be gearing up for a major battle, the AP adds:
Ethiopian troops are pouring into neighboring Somalia to fight radical Islamists who have taken over much of the country, raising fears of more violence in a country fighting a deadly insurgency and piracy, witnesses and the Somali government said Tuesday.
[A] Somali military spokesperson, Dahir Dhere, said the Ethiopian soldiers intend to stop the extremist Islamist Al Shabab group who are advancing steadily toward the capital Mogadishu.
In Mogadishu, Ethiopian troops reoccupied part of the northern district of Yaqshiid, which was evacuated five days ago.
It remains unclear how the recent fighting may affect the withdrawal plans.
Mareeg, an online news provider focused on Somalia, reports that Ethiopia may be responding to international pressure.
Ethiopia has said it will withdraw its troops from Somalia at the end of the year, however Ethiopia has said it has postponed [its] withdrawal after requests by the African Union and the international community.
Earlier, AFP reported that Ethiopia said it could "extend its deployment by 'a few days.' " It cited a government statement that explained:
This did not imply any delay in withdrawal but might allow for some flexibility in terms of a few days, if necessary....
Most informed predictions go something like this: if the several thousand Ethiopian troops withdraw by January, as they recently said they would, the 3,000 or so African Union peacekeepers in Somalia could soon follow, leaving Somalia wide open to the Islamist insurgents who have been massing on the outskirts of Mogadishu, the capital.
The Times adds that the withdrawal could not come at a worse time for Somalia:
For the past 17 years, Somalia has been ripped apart by anarchy, violence, famine, and greed. It seems as though things there can never get worse. But then they do.
The pirates off Somalia's coast are getting bolder, wilier and somehow richer, despite an armada of Western naval ships hot on their trail. Shipments of emergency food aid are barely keeping much of Somalia's population of nine million from starving. The most fanatical wing of Somalia's Islamist insurgency is gobbling up territory and imposing its own harsh brand of Islamic law, like whipping dancers and stoning a 13-year-old girl to death.
If the government implodes, the Shabab group appears poised to take control, the AP explains.
The Shabab declared an Islamic state in a region of southern Somalia on Sunday, establishing posts including a governor, security official, and chief judge, according to the US-based SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist sites. The declaration is the latest sign of the Shabab's steady advance.
The New York Times adds:
Most analysts predict that the war-weary people of Mogadishu would initially welcome the Islamists, out of either relief or fear. In 2006, Islamist troops teamed up with clan elders and businessmen to drive out the warlords who had been preying upon Somalia's people since the central government first collapsed in 1991. The six months the Islamists ruled Mogadishu turned out to be one of the most peaceful periods in modern Somali history.
Al Shabab's rise to power is likely to have a ripple effect outside Somalia and is expected to create new challenges for the Obama administration, the AP reports.
The United States fears that Somalia could be a terrorist breeding ground, and accuses al-Shabab of harboring the al-Qaida-linked terrorists who allegedly blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.