Given the lack of data from inside the conflict zone, Somalia may be the world’s deadliest conflict pound for pound. Survivors speak of a lunar landscape in Mogadishu, roving local militias, al-Shabab’s harsh rule, corrupt government soldiers, and of course no food. Somalians are living a nightmare reputed to keep Western intelligence agents up at night, along with African and humanitarian officials.
Unfortunately Somalia’s storm is just beginning and chasers are in for a perverse spectacle. Long have the clouds gathered, from Ethiopia’s two year invasion through 2009 to the official fusing of al-Shabab and al-Qaeda in 2010, until the sky turned pitch dark. The bombings in Kampala reverberated like the first lightning bolt. Now the American thunder is rolling in.
Members of 40 African Union have gathered in Kampala to decide Somalia's future. Presumably one of the best opportunities to stem the flow of blood, now was the chance to establish an international framework centered on deescalation, strict oversight, and going local. Many future problems created by the events that transpired could have been avoided. But the message of one guest in particular, US Attorney General Eric Holder, “heavily tilted towards security concerns in the Horn of Africa region.”
“I believe he wants to send a signal of strong support to the African Union in terms of fighting terrorists, maintain peace and security on the continent,” Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary James Mugume said of President Barack Obama.
Accordingly, AU commission chairman Jean Ping declared at the summit, "Guinea is preparing a battalion to be sent to Somalia immediately. Djibouti prepared a battalion six months ago. Guinea's commanders are in Mogadishu preparing for the arrival of their troops... There will be a rapid surge to reach the maximum size and the current threats will not prevent this deployment.”
The storm is still in its infancy though. African Union Mission in Somalia’s (AMISOM) numbers expanded from 6,000 to just under 8,000 when Uganda deployed its emergency forces days before Kampala. Now the AU is certain to lift the 8,000 cap on AMISOM’s mandate to make room for two battalions from Guinea and Djibouti. Ping expects the total force to soon reach 10,000.
al-Qaeda, eager to spread the conflict internationally, will likely respond with new strikes on Uganda, viewing it as the ringleader.
Thunder will follow these flashes of lightening, each round progressively escalating the conflict. Reuters reports that four other African nations have sent military commanders to Somalia: Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Zambia. All are considering battalions or brigades for rapid deployment, likely to be launched following al-Qaeda strikes that at this point appear encouraged. The 20,000 troops demanded by Uganda President Yoweri Museyeni are becoming reality.
Ping also repeated Museveni’s call for an offensive mandate: "If this request is answered positively, our troops will attack.”
Both sides appear eager for war and the West is quick to please both. In an interview with allAfrica.com, Johnnie Carson, US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, warns, “Given the magnitude of the problems on three levels – domestic, regional, international – now is the time for the international community to recognize that this problem will only get worse for all of us if we do not come together to find a solution.”
Ironically, America’s urgency to act is nearly certain to produce the opposite goal of its strategy.
One fatal error besets US policy in Somalia: the AU, with US support, is waging a conventional war instead of counterinsurgency. Every problem - lack of reliable government, indiscriminate fire from foreign troops, fractured political and social fabric, poverty, regionalization, perplexed foreign governments - is a counterinsurgency problem. But instead of confronting the insurgency, the only realistic chance of defeating it, the AU and Washington have sunk into denial mode.
“I think it is the correct policy,” says Carson of America’s support for AU escalation. “The policy that we pursue towards Somalia is supported by IGAD [the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an organization of six eastern African nations]. It is a policy that was designed and orchestrated by the people of Somalia and supported by the region to bring together a transitional government that would bring in as many clans and sub-clan groups as possible.”
Sounds good, but when asked, “Why hasn't the TFG been effective?” Carson responds with a non-reply: “The TFG needs to improve its game. It needs to be more active and energetic – more inclusive, governing better.” He then downplays child soldiers, saying, “I believe those stories are an exaggeration... not that there aren't child soldiers around,” before committing the primal counterinsurgency sin: accepting civilian casualties as part of war and blaming the insurgent.
Carson tacitly condoned indiscriminate fire by AU troops that, “may occur, yes, and it's wrong whether it's a lot or a little. But I don't think it represents a policy. Somalia is probably one of the three or four most dangerous and unpredictable war zones in the world, and these kinds of things happen in those environments.”
That attitude may play in the Western media, but it doesn’t fly on the ground in Afghanistan or Somalia. Carson shares a boat with AMISOM spokesman Major Barigye Bahoku, who claimed not to know of the Washington Post or AP reports accusing AU troops of indiscriminate fire. He was plenty upset by them though, believing that AU forces aren’t responsible and that al-Shabab is solely to blame.
“Whatever case it is, I think what we should be thinking about is that the forces opposed to the peace process which unleash their regular attacks from residential areas and all types of places using human shields is what’s causing the loss of life in Mogadishu. So, blame must be taken to the doorsteps of those who always provoke those situations."
Like Carson, Bahoku expressed regrets that civilians are regularly caught in cross fire, but writes it off as “the nature of the place called Mogadishu.” This is direct evidence that the AU and America are waging conventional warfare in Somalia, not counterinsurgency, where assuming risk and protecting the population are decisive factors. Their testimony amounts to conceding that the insurgency will worsen.
Substituting counterinsurgency for conventional warfare produces a multitude of dilemmas.
Following Uganda’s increasingly offensive and destructive operations in Mogadishu, foreign forces continue to operate without a political framework inside or outside the war-zone. And Yohannes Woldemariam, writing for Pambazuka News, offers a great analogy: deploying Ugandan and other regional forces is like sending Indian troops to secure Pakistan. An oxymoron. Woldemariam also highlights the danger of supporting authoritarian governments and jeopardizing their own domestic support, a situation akin to Pervez Musharraf’s reign in Pakistan.
“In the aftermath of the Kampala bombings,” Woldemariam writes, “Obama said that Al-Qaida is racist and doesn't care about African lives. No sane person would dispute that. However, the real question is whether Obama cares about African lives. If he truly does, why would he meddle and prop up dictators like Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, dictators who willfully sacrifice their soldiers and the lives of innocents for some foreign exchange dollars? Not surprisingly, both Zenawi and Museveni are already positioning themselves to argue for expanded intervention and to milk the Kampala tragedy, with Obama playing right into it.”
For all the problems “inherited” from George Bush, Obama’s response to a 9/11 type of attack is roughly the same. Somalia’s future destabilization won’t be so easily passed off.
It’s likely that Somalia’s ground conditions will overwhelm the AU force, whether 10,000 or 20,000. Not only are they unconditioned in counterinsurgency and propping up an unpopular government, the AU needs far more troops to make a decisive impact outside Mogadishu. We’ve estimated 100,000 +, given the relative similarities with Iraq or Afghanistan and lack of a local security force.
The mystery of how al-Shabab and al-Qaeda bombed Kampala has also been resolved after Ugandan intelligence linked them with the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group. From here the connection leads to Nadui Camp in the Congo, which supposedly trains al-Qaeda recruits from North Africa, Pakistan, Somalia and Eritrea. When asked about the camp, Ugandan Army spokesperson Felix Kulayigye said he deemed it unnecessary to attack since Congo was doing so - with “full support from the Americans.”
Beneath the shiny diplomatic veneer lies a military-centric strategy. Given that the Congo is almost as poor as Somalia, raiding rebel hideouts offers no salvation to the conflict in itself.
The undertone of Washington’s policy throughout Kampala’s aftermath is keeping US troops out of Somalia, thought to be hated, while throwing anything else that might stick. Such a strategy may be the "only available option," according to US officials, but is destined to inflame the conflict and increase the likelihood of US forces being deployed later on.
And from there the war spins totally out of control - not exactly “the correct policy" to stabilize Somalia.