Anyone would think that media outlets were deliberately trying to confuse and bewilder people with their reporting of the crisis in Somalia. Depending on who you read, "government forces" or "forces loyal to Somalia's government" have been fighting "Islamist militiamen" or "Islamic militiamen". The "government forces" are, of course, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) led by "President" Abdullahi Yusuf and supported not only by "Ethiopian troops" as the WaPo has it, but most significantly by the United States. The trouble with the label "government forces" is that they do not govern in any meaningful sense, and represent no significant constituency within Somalia. Since international 'peace talks' secured the TFG in 2004, they have not controlled any significant part of the country. They are a loose and unpopular collection of warlords who now control only one town: Baidoa, which The Observer describes as "the temporary capital". No no - Mogadishu is the capital. I checked.
The "Islamist militiamen" are the Islamic Courts Council who do represent a popular constituency, and do in fact government from Mogadishu. Earlier this year it was reported that, despite the ICC's success in defeating the US-backed warlords back in July, the CIA and US private military 'contractors' (mercenaries) would continue to to support the TFG. Leaked e-mails from one such mercenary outfit, Select Armor, discusses meetings with CIA agents and Abdullahi Yusuf, and remarks that several British mercenary outfits were looking to get involved - one can think of a few who would be well-placed to do so. The e-mails also refer to the "fucks" at the UN, who are nevertheless "on side" on the basic question of supporting the TFG. It certainly is - the UN Security Council only yesterday authorised the use of African troops to support "government forces".
Now, when I say the "government forces" are a collection of warlords, I mean it in roughly the same sense that the current ruling elite of Afghanistan are warlords: military commanders whose main source of revenue is violent extortion, and traffic in people and drugs. The US has, more or less since the collapse of the state led by Siad Barre in 1991, first fought and then relied upon these people to keep the country safe for American investors.
One of the results of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 was the discovery of a treasury trove of documentation about US foreign policy involving the Shah. One of those revelations was the Safari Club, a coalition of states initially directed by Kissinger to coordinate anticommunist interventions in African states. Siad Barre, a Greater Somalia nationalist and a brutal ruler who tended to disappear dissidents into secret prisons, initially tended to orient toward the Soviet Union, but when he tried to invade and annexe the Ogdalen, a region claimed by Ethiopia, Cuban troops directed by the SU repelled his forces. Consequently, the Safari Club offered him the arms that he would need to take the Ogdalen if he would only tear up his treaties with the Soviet Union. Since it was not in the US interests, however, this deal was not followed through, although America supported Barre until he was overthrown in 1991, not least because of the access he allowed US oil corporations.
Today, the equivalent of the old Safari Group in relation to Somalia is the Contact Group created by the State Department earlier this year, composed of America and several EU states. Formally promoting dialogue between the TFG and the ICC, this group is providing illicit military support to the otherwise beleaguered military commanders. If 6,000 Ethiopian troops are now assisting the "government forces", it is because the Contact Group has, through the UNSC given it the green light.
The war is clearly a war between the Somali people, who want a strong, stable and independent central government run by the Islamic Courts, and the "international community" who want the country subordinated to imperialist interests. The impression given by the news coverage of this fighting, which could indeed result in a regional conflagration, is that there are these inscrutable black people, some of them scary Muslims, who are inexplicably fighting one another over some obscure doctrinal disputes, while the West stands helplessly by. It is a chaotic story, in which facts aren't given any coherence. The Observer mentions the UNSC's "controversial" resolution, but displays no awareness of the significance of this, nor does it mention its previous revelations of mercenary involvement. It mentions that US policy could be viewed as "taking sides", but doesn't mention that this is because the US is in fact "taking sides". It mentions that the UNSC policy of supporting African troops to support the TFG is driven by the US, but then goes on to describe such troops as "foreign peacekeepers". The US is acting "controversially", but no one knows why. It supports "peacekeepers" who "take sides" but it is not clear if the US is in fact taking sides, and for what reasons. All is a muddle. Is this incoherence and confusion what liberal hacks mean by their insistence on "nuance"?