How Will Obama Respond to the Uganda Attacks?

Al-Shabab's assault on Kampala could re-focus U.S. policy toward Somalia.


Until yesterday, most every policymaker who works on Somalia thought — or, at least, hoped — that the damage from the country’s implosion would remain within its borders. After two coordinated bomb blasts exploded in Uganda’s capital of Kampala Sunday, however, the picture has permanently changed. Before, Somalia’s Islamist group al-Shabab, a self-proclaimed regional al Qaeda affiliate that controls large swathes of the country, including much of Mogadishu, seemed like a threat to the Somali people and local aid workers but hardly anyone else. Now, after the attacks, al-Shabab has shown its ability to threaten its East African neighbors as well. It’s a scenario that has kept East African counterterrorism analysts sleepless for years: a functional jihadist cell that can plan and execute civilian attacks internationally.

In Somalia’s two-decade history of ungoverned chaos, it has been well-meaning foreign intervention — whether military or political — that has consistently refigured the country’s course. Usually, for the worse. Now the attempt to address al-Shabab’s broadening capabilities could kick off another round of international intervention in Somalia, with equally dismal results.

The threat from Somalia is hardly unexpected, or at least it shouldn’t have been. "A number of capitals have been hoping that [an attack like this] wouldn’t happen, or not on their watch," says one regional analyst who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of his organization. "It’s going to awaken them to a threat. But it’s not new. They were either in denial or ignoring it."

The U.S. government fell into this category for most of its long relationship with the East African country. As James Traub recently reported for Foreign Policy, the U.S. policy toward failed states in general and Somalia in particular, has been a muddle of short-term tactical aims devoid of long-term planning. In recent years, Washington has supported an Ethiopian occupation of Somalia, funded and armed a subsequent transitional government, carried out drone strikes against selective terrorist targets, and funded warlords to keep Islamists in check. Of particular interest was the U.S. assistance in bringing an African Union peacekeeping mission (known as AMISOM) to Somalia. That mission was cited as the trigger for al-Shabab’s attacks in Uganda, since it was mostly staffed by Ugandan and Burundian troops (some of whom were trained and equipped by U.S. forces, according to U.S. State Department and military sources). Ugandan troops are also training fighters for the Somali government’s army, with U.S. help.

Despite all of Washington’s varied attempts to provide some order to Somalia, however, the general consensus among Somalia-watchers — and indeed among some in the U.S. government — is that nothing has really worked. Part of the problem may have been confusion over America’s goals; aside from scoring small points in the long war on terror, they never seemed clear. Was the priority a stable Somalia — which, if it ever comes, may well be under Islamic rule — or was a secular government more important? Beyond the vagueness in strategy, the Somalia portfolio was a hot potato for various branches of the U.S. government, never truly owned by one agency.

Recently, however, things seemed like they might be changing — just before the attacks happened. The Obama administration had begun a long process of rethinking Somalia strategy as part of its ongoing policy review. "This administration is really trying to get it right on Somalia," a State Department official told me. "But it’s hard to get something like Somalia right."

With any luck, that process will continue in earnest now, and indeed, the State Department official called the Uganda attacks "a snap to attention." Analyst Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College and a former special advisor to the U.N. operation in Somalia, told me, "There has been a new openness recently to a policy rethink on a fairly substantial level, and [now is] one of those moments where thinking more broadly about new policy options in Somalia is possible."

So what policy options are on the table today? The easiest — and also the most dangerous — would be targeted drone attacks against specific figures in al-Shabab. The political appeal of such an approach is clear: It’s a strong response but doesn’t carry the risks and costs of a longer-term engagement. (Think drone attacks in Northwest Pakistan against al Qaeda and Taliban forces there.) But the blowback with such an approach would also be severe. Al-Shabab has crafted its rhetoric around the idea of fighting against intervention, something that Somalia has had no shortage of since 1992. In that regard, popular opinion is in its favor. "Al-Shabab wants to conflate Islamism with Somali nationalism," one analyst told me, and a U.S. strike would give them fuel to feed anti-foreigner fires.

Another probable option is to scale up support for AMISOM, the beleaguered peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu. The peacekeepers today are the only thing keeping the country’s feeble government from collapsing. ("If AMISOM leaves, the [government] leaves with it," a second analyst told me.) Bulking AMISOM up probably wouldn’t do much to improve security, but it would show support for Somalia’s transitional government. Not surprisingly, that seems to be what the country’s Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke would like, in addition to more help of just about any kind. In a press release today, he "call[ed] on the civilized world to unite in stopping the mindless terror enterprise of Al-Shabaab — which clearly is the Al Qaeda branch of Somalia."

The United States (and the West more broadly) does have one final option: doing absolutely nothing. It’s more likely than it sounds. "This is about options," said the first analyst. "And the problem with the international community is that nobody sees any options." Nearly everyone who has tried to get Somalia policy right over the last 20 years has gotten burned, and no one is sure what to try next. "What’s needed is a sophisticated and nuanced attack on networks inside and outside Somalia — financiers, facilitators, business sympathizers, and the diaspora," says the second analyst. "But that’s far too complicated and calibrated for most governments to have the stomach for."

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