FRESNO, CA -- The Horn of Africa, my favorite free-fire zone, has some good news and some bad. The bad news is, Somalia has gone peaceful. The good news is, not for long.
Yep, war's coming back to the Horn in a big way, with a classic faceoff between Ethiopia and the Islamists. Since the Abyssinian Emperors have been bashing Muslims for centuries, and the Muslims have been taking revenge for just as long, this is a classic matchup everybody in the Horn has been looking forward to.
And it's just in time, because Somalia, a usually reliable source of gore and chaos, has gone all law-abiding, under the influence of these rule-crazy Mullahs. Mogadishu's not quite as wimpy as Oslo yet, but the good ol' days when you couldn't walk your Saluki in downtown Mog without dodging heavy machinegun fire from dueling technicals gunned by 12-year-old khat-crazed punks -- the Golden Age, as I like to call it -- that's over.
Everything was going just fine over there until the summer of 2006. Somalia was setting the rest of us sluggards an example of hi-octane free-fire democracy. Then the preachers had to get into the act.
Preachers are bad news everywhere -- I've sat through enough un-airconditioned sermons to fill a swimming pool with bored sweat -- but Islamic preachers are even more anti-everything than Southern Baptists. Except for one thing, the whole Jihad concept. Gotta give'em that.
Jihad, let's face it, is cool. But the rest? No fun at all, because Allah is just down on everything. That's basically why the Somalis let the Islamists, calling themselves the Union of Islamic Courts, take over the capital and most of the boondocks this summer: they wanted a rest. The fun was just getting too intense for the fogeys among them. The same kind of people who always call the cops on loud parties next door. Just because you had to train your baby in duck-n-cover before it learned to talk, they got into a sulk and called in these "Islamic Courts."
If it was me I'd've gone door-to-door (carefully, in a Kevlar suit) pleading with the silent majority: "Look, this is Somalia! You've got an example to set to the rest of us stuck in office jobs! Bear with it! What's a few stray bullets? Where's your pride?"
But no, they wimped out and went with the social conservatives, just like Denver or Kansas City. And just like in Denver, what ruined the fun was an alliance between big business and the churches. The Somali businessmen were getting tired of having to pay tolls to the kids running the roadblocks, so they stoked up the Mullahs, kicked in big money for a PR campaign, and next thing you know Allah's in charge and the locals are too scared to play music in their cars. And they drive "just under the speed limit" all through Mog now, because apparently the Koran is also against speeding. You kind of have to wonder how the great minds of Islamic scholarship figured that out.
In fact, nobody's sure what exactly Sharia courts are supposed to do about stuff like soccer, illegal left turns and stereos because Mohammed somehow forgot to get the word from the big A on all those tech marvels, but there's a pretty simple rule of thumb you can apply here: they're gonna cut your thumb off. Or something bigger. When in doubt, Allah's against it.
So now I have to re-imagine my favorite city as some kind of quiet churchy place. Oh, the pain--Mogadishu, my last hope, and you're driving like Danes!
Can't really blame them, though. The fun has been going on a little long in Mog; anybody'd want a rest. It's been non-stop chaos there since 1991, when Siad Barre was replaced by...nobody, really. A junta of 14-year-old wackos in Toyota 4x4s. Hardcore Islam looks good after all that noise.
There's a pattern here, one you fans of hardcore Islamic war will appreciate. The Taleban came to power in Kandahar the same way: the locals got tired of chaos. The Pushtun have their own urban legend that the Taleban were just a bunch of harmless Koran nerds who grabbed their guns when two local warlords started blowing up Kandahar in a fight over a little boy. (To the Pushtun, real men like real little boys.) The Talebs fanned out from their madrassi, hanged both warlords from the barrel of a T-62, and within a few months had conquered almost all of the country.
That's probably a lie. These stories always pop up about anybody who knows how to use a gun. In parts of Missouri, they still think Jesse James was Robin Hood with Skoal stains in his beard. I doubt it myself, but he had guts and scared the bankers; that was enough to make him a hero. The Taleb brought the Pushtun some self-respect back, made it safe for women to not walk the streets of Kandahar, not go to school -- so everybody was happy.
The Somali version of Islamic rule isn't so down on girls getting out and around. Hell, nobody could come close to the way Pushtun feel about females anyway; there's a Pushtun saying, "Women belong in the home or in the grave," and another, a real doozy: "Even your own mother and sister are disgusting." Interesting people.
The Somalis are nowhere near that interesting about girls, maybe because Somali women are pretty hot, a lot better looking than those beardy Pushtun females. If you ask me, those women from the Horn of Africa are among the best looking around. One good thing about famine -- keeps the girls model-thin.
So when the figurehead of the Union of Islamic Courts, a "moderate" named Ahmed, held a press conference at Mogadishu U., a girl asked him, "Are you the Taleban?"
Well, you can tell these Islamists have some kind of greasy Karl Rove working for them because the Sheikh put on a big smile and said all shiny, "Actually, I am happy a woman is asking this question - at a university campus."
Great answer. Didn't say no, just said he's glad to get this scene on video, because it's such perfect PR: "Look how free our women are! How wonderfully insolent this female has been, and here am I, a sheikh, not having her dipped in boiling oil! Is it not marvelous?"
Of course he probably mumbled some private instructions to some one-eyed Jihadi with a bowie knife once the cameras looked away, and that woman is probably fertilizing the deserts now, but it's the look that counts. These guys aren't going to blow up Buddhas like the real Taleban. They're what you call media-savvy.
The military situation in Somalia now is simpler and clearer than it's been since 1991: the phony "government in exile" they set up in Kenya in 2004 vanished as soon as the Islamic Courts' fighters showed up. This "government" never amounted to much but a facade set up by Western embassies and backed with Western cash.
The problem with this set-up, as we've seen about a million times by now, is that cash will make people put on suits and talk about democracy but cash won't make them fight. Only a serious allegiance will do that, a tribe or a God. The Islamic Courts were selling a God, and the government's mercenaries weren't willing to go up against Allah. They went back to goatherding. So now this "government" is in control of one little town, Baidoa, after losing Kismayo, their only seaport. And the Islamic Courts' deputies are knocking on the door, just like they used to do at about 5 am when my sleazy cousin was due for another stay at the Gray Bar Hotel.
If the only force holding the "government" up was its own fighters, Baidoa would have fallen to the Islamists long ago, and peace would reign with public lashings for everybody going 5 mph over the limit -- 30 extra lashes if you were speeding in a school zone.
Luckily, Ethiopia is standing behind the government because the last thing the Ethiopians want is a strong, Islamic Somalia. In fact, Ethiopia doesn't really want there to be a Somalia at all. They say that Somalia's occupying what ought to be Ethiopian land, the Ogaden. The two countries already went to war over it in 1977 -- usual African result, no winners and lots of dead bodies. The Ethiopian leaders know Somalia very well, because most of them lived in Somalia before they overthrew Mengistu.
Ethiopia already lost its other potential coastline to Eritrea, the Prussia of Africa, and they're damned if they're going to watch the last bit of ocean-view property fall into the hands of some sleazy worry-bead fingering Mullah-slash-condo developer. So they're propping up this useless excuse for a government, and we're helping them because -- ta-da! -- the real face of the Somali Islamists isn't that nice Sheikh Ahmed. He's window dressing. The real leader of these Islamic Courts is Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, a cute little dude with a henna-dyed goatee and a real hardcore Taleban 'tude. (Which is kind of funny, because the Talebs would consider his red goatee an abomination and hang him from that same T-62 barrel if he tried strolling around Kandahar: "Take your moral relativism somewhere else, beatnik!")
Aweys fought against Ethiopia way back in the 1977 war, and he's been pushing the moral power of Islam, the beauty of sawing off hands every Friday, ever since. And Eritrea, which I'm sad to say has been going kind of Islamist lately, is backing him and his court officers, if only because they make Ethiopia nervous. Eritrea would back a giant asteroid if it would just promise to wipe out Ethiopia one millisecond before obliterating the rest of the planet.
See, that's what I like about these people: they're serious. No embarrassment about their feudin' ways. And that's the good news: downtown Mogadishu may be as law-abiding as the suburbs of Denver, but that's just Aweys's scheme for putting the country on a true war footing. Like I've said before, it's the organized, law-abiding peoples who make the best soldiers -- take the Germans and the Japanese, best soldiers of the last century. Wouldn't hurt a fly...till they get their orders. Then stand back.
So all's well in the good ol' Horn, after all. My people are just moving with the times, getting retooled from clan war to a magnificent nation-state showdown to remind us all what made 19th century Europe great.