Ethiopia's P.M. on U.S. Alliance

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is easily Washington's most important African ally in its war on terrorism. In 2006, the United States quietly helped Zenawi's forces invade neighboring Somalia after a U.S.-financed coalition of warlords lost the capital of Mogadishu to an Islamist alliance known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). The Ethiopian forces ousted the UIC but have been bogged down since then fighting an Iraq-style insurgency by Somali Islamist and clan militias. The current round of violence has driven 750,000 from their homes, and Ethiopia's allies in the United Nations-backed transitional federal government [TFG] have been unable to control Mogadishu, much less the rest of the country.

Only a quarter of the 8,000 peacekeeping troops promised by the African Union last year have shown up to relieve the Ethiopians. Meanwhile Zenawi has resuscitated Ethiopia's economy, but he faces criticism over his government's record on democracy and human rights. Following disputed elections in 2005, security forces killed at least 193 civilians and jailed most of the major opposition leaders (though they were later pardoned). This week the Ethiopian prime minister spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jason McLure about Ethiopia's archenemy, Eritrea; its exit plan from Somalia, and its alliance with the United States. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What is Ethiopia's plan to withdraw from Somalia?
Meles Zenawi:
There are two issues here. First is the threat that was posed by the Shabaab [the radical wing of the Union of Islamic Courts] to Ethiopia, when they threatened to take control of the whole of Somalia and at the same time declared jihad against Ethiopia. That threat had to be neutralized and we believe we did that the first weeks of our intervention … We were told by the African Union [AU] and others that in our withdrawal we shouldn't create a vacuum, at which point we indicated we could wait a bit longer so long as the African Union was in a position to replace our troops. That has taken an inordinate amount of time.

So withdrawing unilaterally without AU peacekeepers is an option that you're looking at now?
Well that's an option. It's an option we will not take lightly. But it's an option.

How long will you wait for the African Union or the United Nations or outside peacekeepers to intervene?
We are most certainly not going to wait another year. It's my hope that a number of things will happen that will make it possible for us to withdraw. First is the full deployment of African Union troops. Second is the continued consolidation of the TFG security forces. Thirdly we hope that the local process of reconciliation that is going on, particularly in Mogadishu but also some other places in Somalia, will make progress.

Does Ethiopia have a contingency plan should the TFG collapse or be unable to extend its power over Mogadishu?
As I said earlier on, we could have withdrawn weeks after our intervention. But that would not create a stable situation in Somalia. And creating a stable situation in Somalia is in the long-term interest of everybody. I have no reason to believe the TFG will fail. It may not make spectacular progress, but I have no reason to believe that it will simply collapse.

A number of analysts believe Ethiopian troops have had a positive effect short term on the TFG by providing security assistance, but in the long term are undermining the TFG by fomenting nationalist and Islamist sentiments in Somalia.
An oversupply of national sentiment is not the problem in Somalia. The problem in Somalia is a lack of it. The problem in Somalia is an oversupply of sub-sub-clannish attitude. Our efforts together with the TFG have been focused on bridging the gaps of the sub-sub-sub-clans of Somalia. As far as Islamist fervor is concerned. Ethiopia was not in Somalia when the Shabaab took control of Mogadishu and threatened to take control of the whole of Somalia. Ethiopia was not in Somalia when the Shabaab declared jihad on Ethiopia. What Ethiopia did through its intervention is take the bubble out of this Shabaab phenomenon.

How many Ethiopian troops have died in Somalia since December 2006? How many injured?
Quite a few.

Do you have more precise numbers? Hundreds? Thousands?
In the hundreds.

How many troops are in Somalia right now?
A few thousand. Two, three thousand.

How much has the invasion cost Ethiopia in money terms?
Substantial amounts.

A hundred million dollars?
No. It's a low-tech, low-cost intervention on the part of Ethiopia. That doesn't mean that every cent we spent on Somalia couldn't have been better spent in Ethiopia. But on the whole, we have managed without breaking our back economically, to sustain our presence in Somalia.

How much direct financial support has Ethiopia received from the United States to help pay for this intervention?

Has Ethiopia been disappointed in the level of assistance by Western nations to the TFG and Ethiopia?
The response of the international community and the United Nations in general has been less than stellar. We understand why the U.N. could not send a peacekeeping mission. But we do not understand why the U.N., through the Security Council, could not provide some funding to the African Union to carry out the peacekeeping responsibilities. The United Nations insisted that the AU mission in Darfur should be taken over by the U.N. and funded by the U.N., [but] they refused to provide budgeted support to the AU peacekeeping operations in Somalia.

The U.S. has been a bit more forthcoming. They have provided support, for example, to the Ugandans [peacekeepers], to deploy their troops in Mogadishu. They have diplomatically been broadly supportive of the TFG and stabilization in Somalia. But that does not mean the Security Council--and the United States is an important part of the Security Council--has not delivered as many of us in the region would have expected.

Some say the U.S. government is working at cross purposes in that U.S. intelligence agencies are supporting elements nominally within the TFG but that aren't helpful to the reconciliation process--particularly the mayor of Mogadishu, Mohammed Dheere, a former warlord.
Well before the Shabaab took over in Mogadishu [in 2006], some in the intelligence community in the United States were playing a very negative role through their support of all sorts of warlords who were brought together in the vain hope that they could stem the tide of the Shabaab. That policy failed miserably. I believe since then it has not been pursued in the manner it was pursued before. Since then the main efforts of the United States are through the African Union and the TFG. There is still the focus on individual terrorists harbored in Somalia, particularly among some intelligence entities and some of them tend to look at this issue in isolation. But the overall U.S. policy has changed since those days.

When you say that some in the U.S. government tend to look at the terrorism issue in isolation, what effect does that have on broader policy?
Not much. There have been operations to try to kill some of these terrorists. That's OK, because neutralizing these terrorists has to be part of the solution. But when a disproportionate amount of resources and time is spent on hunting them down, as opposed to creating the right context [for nation-building], it can be counterproductive. So there is that risk. There are some institutions in the U.S. that put too much accent on that aspect of the operations.

Because in total there may be at most a dozen high-value targets there that the U.S. would really like to get.

And so in pursuit of those dozen or so targets, maybe there are other things the U.S. could be giving resources or attention to.
Yes, there's a question of balancing the deployment of your time and resources.

The U.S. State Department recently listed the Al-Shabaab militia as a terrorist group. What effect does that have on the reconciliation process?
I am at a loss to understand why it took the United States so long to put Al-Shabaab in the terrorist list. If one believes that one can reconcile with Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists whose sole agenda is to establish a caliphate in the Horn of Africa centered on Somalia, then of course characterizing this institution as a terrorist organization hinders that type of reconciliation. If one however recognizes that that type of reconciliation is a code word for surrender, then characterizing this organization as a terrorist organization doesn't make any difference. There are many in the opposition in the so-called Islamic Courts movement who are not Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is a very small kernel of hard-core terrorists. Apart from that small kernel, everybody else could be talked to, and even individuals within the Al-Shabaab core movement could be won over.

With regard to the counterinsurgency in the Ogaden, what's the status of the fight against rebels in eastern Ethiopia and what sort of links are there between the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and the insurgency in Somalia?
There was a broad front organized by the Eritreans involving all sorts of Ethiopian rebels and the Islamic Courts movement in Somalia. The ONLF constituted a very important part of that broad front. We believe the back of the ONLF insurgency in the region has now been broken.

Ethiopia has faced a number of accusations of atrocities in the Ogaden during the counterinsurgency. U.S. satellites have identified some burned villages in the region. Are there atrocities happening now?
No. There are no atrocities happening in the Ogaden. Naturally, when there is fighting, there is death, and sometimes death of civilians. But in this case because it was low-tech, labor-based type of fighting, collateral damage was minimal. I am not aware of any U.S. intelligence assessment that shows there was widespread violation of human rights or killing of civilians or burning of villages.

With regard to Eritrea, the U.N. peacekeepers are mostly gone from the border area. What's keeping the two countries from going to war again?
We're not going to war with Eritrea because we don't want to. One stupid war is enough. On the Eritrean side, I think what's keeping them from going to war is the recognition that if they were to do so they would not profit from it.

Will you stay as prime minister after your term expires in 2010?
This is likely to be my last term.

Local elections are approaching and a number of major leaders of the opposition who were jailed after 2005 aren't participating. Some of the remaining opposition parties say they've faced intimidation, harassment. What can you tell us about the status of Ethiopia's democracy efforts?
We are consolidating democracy with every step. After 2005 we discussed with the opposition who were in Parliament to address some of their concerns. We changed the way the national election board was organized. We have changed the bylaws of Parliament to make it possible for the minority to set the agenda for debate on specific dates. We are now processing a new press law that we very much hope will put our legislation on par with the best in the world. So we have continuously been addressing any shortcomings with the institutions in our country. Now, every time there is an election here, somebody cries foul. That unfortunately appears to be the normal practice in the continent, whether there is substantial evidence to back it or not. That we all have to live with.

Ethiopia is Africa's fastest-growing non-oil economy, but the U.S. Agency for International Development says that 9 million people in Ethiopia will require food assistance this year.
We have not had as much success in the pastoralist areas of our country as we have had elsewhere in terms of growth. And the pastoralist areas are very vulnerable to changes in weather. We need to move on the one hand to make pastoralism more productive, and on the other hand to try and encourage people, the pastoralists, to settle voluntarily. Secondly, we need to do more in the way of irrigation-related infrastructure, particularly in the drought-affected areas so that people benefit. And then in recent years poverty, which was largely rural is now shifting as the urban poor's income fails to improve as much as that of those in rural areas. So there are a lot of challenges that we need to address, in spite of the fact that we have had five years of double-digit growth.

Ethiopia's P.M. on U.S. Alliance | News