Meles Zenawi: An Impatient Ally

Despite his poor human-rights record, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is Washington's most important African ally in the War on Terrorism. In 2006—after an alliance of Islamists that included the radical al-Shabaab militia took over neighboring Somalia's capital, Mogadishu—Ethiopia, with quiet U.S. backing, invaded, putting a U.N.-supported Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in power. Since then, Ethiopian troops have become bogged down fighting an insurgency that has driven 750,000 Somalis from their homes and shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, only a quarter of the peacekeepers promised by the African Union have shown up. Recently Zenawi sat down with NEWSWEEK's Jason McLure in Addis Ababa to discuss Ethiopia's exit plan, its archenemy Eritrea and its alliance with the United States.

McLure: How does Ethiopia plan to withdraw from Somalia?
Zenawi: There are two issues. First is the threat that was posed by the Shabaab, who threatened to take control of Somalia and declared jihad against Ethiopia. That threat had to be neutralized, and we did that in the first weeks. From a purely Ethiopian perspective, we could have withdrawn. But we were told by the African Union and others that we shouldn't create a vacuum. We indicated we could wait until the AU could replace our troops. That has taken an inordinate amount of time.

How long will you wait?
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 AU troops. Second is the continued consolidation of the TFG security forces. Third, we hope that the local process of reconciliation will make progress. We do not have to be in Mogadishu to positively influence the security situation.

Some say Ethiopian troops have helped the TFG by providing security assistance but hurt it in the long term by fomenting Somali nationalism and Islamism.
An oversupply of national sentiment is not the problem in Somalia. The problem is a lack of it. The problem is an oversupply of sub-sub-clannish attitude. Our efforts, together with the TFG, have been focused on bridging the gaps [between these] clans. As far as Islamist fervor is concerned, Ethiopia was not in Somalia when the Shabaab took control. Ethiopia was not in Somalia when the Shabaab declared jihad on Ethiopia. What Ethiopia did is [burst] the bubble of this Shabaab phenomenon.

How much financial support has Ethiopia received from the United States for the war?

Has Ethiopia been disappointed in the level of assistance by Western nations?
The response of the international community and the U.N. 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 AU. The U.S. has been a bit more forthcoming. They have provided support, for example, to the Ugandans to deploy their troops in Mogadishu. They have diplomatically been broadly supportive of the TFG and stabilization in Somalia.

Some say the U.S. intelligence agencies are supporting elements within the TFG that aren ' t helpful to the reconciliation process.
Before the Shabaab took over, some in the U.S. intelligence community were playing a very negative role by supporting all sorts of warlords in the vain hope they could stem the tide of the Shabaab. That policy failed miserably. Since then, the main U.S. efforts are through the AU and the TFG.

What effects do U.S. counterterrorism operations have on broader policy?
There have been operations to try to kill some of these terrorists. That's OK. But when a disproportionate amount of resources and time are spent on hunting them down, as opposed to creating the right context [for nation-building], it can be counterproductive.

With regard to Eritrea, what ' s keeping the two countries from going to war again?
One stupid war is enough. We don't want to go to war, [although] it is not for lack of provocation: Eritrea has publicly and repeatedly stated that it is training and equipping Ethiopian rebels with the explicit objective of dismantling Ethiopia.

Local elections are beginning and a number of opposition leaders who were jailed in 2005 aren ' t participating. Some opposition parties say they ' ve faced intimidation, harassment. What is the state of Ethiopia ' s democracy?
We are consolidating democracy with every step. After 2005 we [had discussions] with the opposition 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. 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 shortcomings. Now, every time there is an election here, somebody cries foul. That unfortunately appears to be the normal practice in the continent.