It was an off-hand compliment during a January 2007 dinner meeting between Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, plus staff, and then-U.S. Central Commander boss General John Abizaid. But Al Nayhan’s jocular praise, as reported in WikiLeaks’ trove of leaked diplomatic cables, is a rare admission that the United States played a central role in the disastrous December 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, a move that ultimately emboldened the very Islamic extremists the U.S. and Ethiopia had hoped to squash.
“The Somalia job was fantastic,” Al Nahyan interjected between discussions of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the prince’s desire to buy Reaper drones for his air force. At the time of Al Nahyan’s comment, the dust was just settling from Ethiopia’s Blitzkrieg-style assault toward Mogadishu. Some 50,000 Ethiopian troops, supported by T-55 tanks, Hind helicopters and Su-27 jet fighters, had cut a bloody swath through the lightly-armed forces of the Islamic Courts Union, an alliance of mostly nationalist Islamic fighters that prior to the invasion had controlled much of Somalia.
The Somali attack had surprised outside observers. Ethiopia and Somalia had been rivals a long time, but no one had expected such brutal fighting, and so suddenly. It was fairly obvious that Ethiopia had received significant help — even urging — for its invasion. For one, Ethiopia’s air force did not appear capable of coordinated air strikes in support of on-the-move ground troops; it seemed likely that the Su-27s were piloted by Russian or Ukrainian mercenaries — a time-honored tradition in Africa. What’s more, Ethiopia’s army didn’t possess the intelligence or logistical skill for long-range operations. Those, not coincidentally, are particular American strengths.
Washington certainly had a motive to get involved in Somalia. There was growing concern in the White House and the Pentagon that Somalia’s Islamists might ally themselves with Al Qaeda and turn to international terrorism. Already with two escalating wars on its own plate, the U.S. was in no position to openly lead its own large-scale attack on Somalia. It’d have been far simpler to simply sponsor somebody else to do the dirty work. Enter Ethiopia.
In early January following the invasion, USA Today’s Barbara Slavin reported on Washington’s extensive behind-the-scenes support for Ethiopian troops. “The ties include intelligence sharing, arms aid and training,” Slavin noted. A couple days later, The Washington Post’s Pauline Jelinek, citing anonymous sources, described U.S. Special Forces accompanying Ethiopian troops. CBS news revealed that U.S. Air Force gunships were active over southern Somalia during the Ethiopian blitz. Through all the reporting, U.S. officials remained vague or silent on the subject of Washington’s involvement. All the same, evidence was mounting that the U.S. had played a leading role in the Ethiopian invasion. Journalists only strongly suspected it, but Abu Dhabi prince Al Nayhan apparently knew it for certain, if his praise of “the Somalia job” was any indication.
Three years later, it’s clear the Ethiopian invasion was a bad idea. The attack rallied Somalis of all stripes and politics against the invaders, ultimately boosting support for fringe Islamic groups that now had a clear enemy in the Ethiopians and their suspected American puppet-masters. Violence mounted as the Ethiopians settled in for a bloody, two-year occupation.
When the Ethiopians withdrew in 2009, the Islamists rushed to fill the vacuum. A year later, the Al Shabab Islamic group, successor to the Islamic Courts, conducted its first international terror attack. Last month, a Somali-born American teen plotted to explode a bomb in Portland. Today, U.S. Special Forces continue to target terrorists in Somalia. There are arguably more of them than ever, thanks in part to the botched Ethiopian invasion. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes and Ethiopia’s entry in 2006 was not a really good idea,” U.S. diplomat Donald Yamamoto said in March.