The Obama administration has to get serious about dealing with Somalia and the Somali Islamist jihadist group Harakat Al-Shabaab. The July 11 bombings in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, which killed 76 people, should have sent the administration a clear warning signal. The messages are both blunt and subtle, and the administration needs to get those messages and respond appropriately.
The terror attacks were well planned. Shabaab has now shown that it can strike beyond Somalia's borders and engage in bombing campaigns through Somali diaspora networks anywhere in East Africa and probably also in the U.S. But the more subtle message is this: Shabaab leadership calculates that Uganda will retaliate with ever increasing brutality against civilians in Somalia's capital, Mogadishu — thus bringing more cadres into its ranks, including support from the United States.
So far the Ugandans have been playing into their hands. The attacks have already inspired Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni to invite African neighbors to join Uganda and Burundi in sending more African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops, ostensibly to protect that country's feeble Transitional Federal Government. But many within the African Union have been clamoring for these troops to undertake offensive operations. Uganda wants as many as 20,000 international forces, compared with the 6,000 currently stationed in the Somali capital.
The Ugandan and other contingents of the African Union forces in Mogadishu seem more bent on revenge than anything else. In Kampala the government is rounding up Somalis regardless of evidence and throwing them in jail. In Mogadishu officials are violating international humanitarian law. "They're killing lots of civilians right now," one U.S. diplomat with information on the current situation in Somalia told The Root. "At the moment, I am afraid they are going to drive a wedge between themselves and the civilian population."
AMISOM forces now threaten to live up to the reputation of their predecessors. In 2006 Ethiopia led an invasion into Somalia. More than 16,000 were killed, and 1.9 million were displaced as a result. Not surprisingly, Somalia's civilian population hated the Ethiopians, who eventually lost the conflict. More civilian deaths now will breathe new life into Shabaab at just the moment when its popularity among Somalis has reached an all-time low.
To be sure, the Obama administration cannot just stand around and let Shabaab and its al-Qaida allies in Somalia run wild. The group, which now uses South-Central Somalia to host al-Qaida and Taliban operatives, has attracted several recruits from the United States and Europe. Its expanding expertise in improvised explosive devices could probably be employed against targets within the U.S. almost as easily as they could in other parts of East Africa. Doing nothing gives Shabaab the time it needs to plan and carry out its next attack.
But even as U.S. ships patrol the waters off Somalia for pirates, they have made no effort to shut down access to the port of Kismayu, where Shabaab receives many of its weapons and ammunition. Similarly, there has been little or nothing in the way of an initiative to effectively monitor, much less intercept, unauthorized flights into Shabaab-controlled territory, many of which carry arms, money and cadres to the insurgency. The U.S. State Department has the policy lead on Somalia but seems incapable of making decisions that would put more pressure on Shabaab. "They are not making any decisions," one Western diplomat told The Root. "The decision has been no decision."
At the same time, the Obama administration cannot simply supply arms and money to Somalia's government without proper monitoring of where the weapons and funds are going and how they are being used. Financial support has led the cabinet of Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed to become an ever expanding nightmare of corruption and infighting. Negotiations involving potential partners with the current government have either been incomplete or fallen apart altogether. Sheikh Sharif has been so consumed with addressing the infighting among his cabinet that he has made no effort to siphon away those midlevel commanders within Shabaab that have previously expressed a willingness to defect.
The Obama administration has yet to successfully leverage the political, financial and military support it provides Somalia to get Sheikh Sharif to take his job more seriously. That needs to change — and quickly.
Greg Beals is The Root's Middle East correspondent. You can contact him here.