At the end of last year, as the lynch-mob execution of Saddam Hussein held the world's attention, Ethiopian forces invaded Somalia and captured the capital, Mogadishu. The stated aim was to overthrow an alliance of Islamist groups that had come to power with popular support, and had driven out a gang of warlords who had been hated by Mogadishu's civilian population for nearly 13 years.
Ethiopia was supported by US forces. They were targeting three militants who they claimed were linked to al-Qaeda and had been involved in the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings of 1998. Oxfam reported that nomads and their herds had been killed in the air strike, and the US ambassador in Kenya said that the three militants had not been killed in the attack.
But it is easier to enter a military crisis than to get out of it. The Islamic courts were feared, but the presence of Ethiopian troops in the Somali capital is hugely unpopular. Islamist fighters, many of whom melted into the civilian population, recognise this, and see the semi-nationalist desire to expel foreign occupiers as an opportunity to foster insurgency guerrilla movements.
Ethiopia knows how successful such movements can be. It has itself been wracked by decades of guerrilla wars, and its current government sprung from such a movement. It is urgently encouraging other African countries to send peacekeepers so that it can leave. Throughout, the US has given enthusiastic military and diplomatic support to Ethiopia. Some Ethiopian politicians have privately expressed concern to me at being thus seen as America's chief ally and proxy in the Horn of Africa.
Three weeks after Ethiopia's invasion, I travelled to the far north of Somalia where my family still lives, in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. Since 1993, while lawlessness and violence continued to blight the lives of people in the rest of Somalia, the Republic has been stable and twice held elections. Every summer, at least 20,000 Somalis from Britain make the same journey that I made, to visit relatives. Thousands more come from other European countries, the United States and the Gulf. In fact, one of the government's main sources of income is charging returning Somalis, who are now citizens of the UK or the Netherlands, Norway or Canada, large entry-visa fees. I have also made the journey with my wife and children during the summer. Each time I return I am struck by the increasing influence of puritanical interpretations of Islam.
Go back three years, and you would hardly ever see a young woman in the capital, Hargeisa, wearing the full veil. Go back further to my mother's generation and it was unheard of. But this January, the number of women wearing the full veil was striking. So too were the number of young men, in their late teens to mid-twenties, attending recently opened religious seminaries. Generations of young Somali men have attended seminaries and Koranic schools, but they never used to wear turbans or red and white keffiyehs, increasingly a symbol of Sunni sectarian identity.
Somalis have been guest workers in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, for decades, giving Saudi Arabia considerable economic and cultural influence over the people and institutions of the as yet unrecognised Republic of Somaliland. One influence has been the financing of schools based on the puritanical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Western governments seem unperturbed. They are more worried, in the case of Somalia, by the emergence of a loose alliance of home-grown Islamists who came to power because they got rid of hated warlords, than with the large sums of money being spent by Saudi institutions to spread an austere version of Islam.
This is the stance that led Tony Blair's government to call off the investigation into alleged corruption in the BAE System's arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which Blair declared played a key role in the war on terror. Saudi Arabia has for so long been forgiven almost anything by western governments that the kingdom has become wilfully blind to its own role in promoting the very thing that the British and American governments so readily go to war to stop.