Thursday, December 28, 2006

Thoughts on Somalia

The situation has been developing very rapidly in that country the past couple of days. The latest development is that the UIC has withdrawn from Mogadishu (more on the strategic implications of that later.) Eaglespeak, as usual, has a good roundup of the most recent info, including the interesting addition of Somaliland entering the battle on the side of the Ethiopians/provisional government.

A few days ago there seemed to be a meme making its way around the blogosphere that's best represented by these two posts, one by Cliff May at the Corner, and the other over at New Sisyphus's place. (UPDATE: add this post by Froggy at B5's place to the mix.) They tried to draw a conclusion between our recent seemingly fettered and fickle actions in Iraq and other places and the bold actions of the Ethiopian military in the invasion of Somalia. The problem here, of course, lies in the fact that we're talking about two completely different types of warfare. To use one of my "overused phrases" (inside joke with the roommates), it's comparing apples to oranges. The invasion of Somalia is a conventional military action, fought along traditional lines, where one army lines up on a battlefield and engages another army, trying to seize strategic terrain and cities in order to put the enemy in an untenable position. The U.S. accomplished this quite rapidly in the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003.

What followed in Iraq was a low-intensity insurgency where the conventional application of force generally doesn't work (excepting cases such as Fallujah, when we need to clean out a city...but that's a post unto itself). I would not be surprised if the the UIC intends to engage in an insurgency against the transitional government. Indeed, Bill Roggio suspects as much. The Ethiopian government will then face a tough decision. Either withdraw and abandon the transitional government to face an insurgency for which it is ill equipped (which is what I think they will do), recognizing the fact that they'll have to come back in and do this all again in a few years when the transitional government falls again, or they can try and engage in some sort of occupation/nation building effort to support the transitional government. Then, and only then, does a comparison to the MNF in Iraq become accurate. And I strongly suspect that if the Ethiopians were to choose the latter course of action they would fail miserably, because their army simply isn't trained or equipped for that type of operation.

However, those options regarding Somalia does beg the question, why weren't those options available to the U.S. after deposed Saddam's government in '03? Well, if you remember The World's Longest Rush to War, WMDs weren't the only, or even the main, reason we went to war. The primary, although rather understated, reason we went to war was to democratize and liberalize Iraq in order to transform the Middle East. While that sounds like a joke now, it was the stated intention of going in, and if you look at the background of terrorism, it makes a lot of sense. (Look at where the 9/11 hijackers came from...countries that have repressive governments who are nominally allies of the U.S.) To go in Ethiopia style, laying waste with our conventional military forces and then leaving (if Ethiopia acts as I suspect they will) wouldn't make things better and would probably make things worse, as the newly installed strongman would be seen by the oppressed population as a U.S. ally. This would simply piss off a whole 'nother population in the Middle East.

Like it or not, we're stuck fighting insurgencies and we had better get used to it. Unfortunately, it's hard and it's counter to the traditional mission of militaries. The posts I referenced above seem to be an oblique pushback against fighting a counter-insurgency, saying that the Ethiopians just went in and laid waste, so why can't we? Left unsaid is that they're tired of fighting a dirty COIN war and want to return to simpler days when the military was tasked with killing the enemy and seizing positions, and didn't have to worry about what the people think of their ROE or how the populace will react to raids.

This is dangerous thinking in the style of Nicias and the Weinberger Doctrine/Powell Corollary. I've blogged about it before here. Just because something is dirty, hard, and dangerous doesn't mean that we should refuse to do it for those reasons. That's in effect what the above posters are arguing, and it is not the way forward to victory. We've been down that road already in the '80s and '90s, and I think we know where that road leads.