Part of a guerrilla’s job is to magnify his effects by combining tactics, weapons, and information. Last week two UN trucks made their way into the African Union's headquarters in Mogadishu. By themselves, the explosives rigged in the trucks would have caused moderate property damage, a few casualties, and some wounded. By a fuel depot, the blast left 21 people dead including General Juvenal Niyonguruz of Burundi, the AU’s second in command.
Suffering is a constant in Somalia, obscuring how low the situation can deteriorate. How to stack war clouds on more war clouds, how to sound a red alert during red alert? Judging by President Obama’s intensifying minimalist strategy he seems to believe things can’t get any worse, but the lesson of Somalia is that it can always get worse.
The attack on the AU headquarters demonstrated al-Shabab’s evolving capabilities: enemy vehicles for disguise, detailed plans of the enemy base, intelligence to pinpoint the meeting where Niyonguruz was busy planning a new offensive in Mogadishu. “This was very tactical,” said one peacekeeping official. “It’s like these guys had a map of the place.” They probably did - al-Shabab’s growing sophistication and infiltration has knocked the international community on its heels.
But soon after the attack an even more disturbing revelation surfaced. General Niyonguruz had intrinsic value as a target, but he was primarily a message. Sheik Ali Mohamaud Rage, an al-Shabab spokesman, claimed the attack was retaliation for the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the former al-Qaeda commander in Somalia. This raises an unsettling reality - a Burgundian general paid the price for American unilateralism. Does President Obama really want to trigger an assassination contest with al-Shabab, and does he want to alienate African states?
Kenyan Foreign Minister Moses Wetangula was one of several officials to voice concern over America’s unilateral strikes. Not only are they short-sighted from a counterinsurgency perspective, they aren’t popular with some of America’s regional allies. Wetangula said, “What I do not feel comfortable with is the fact that the U.S. would want to conduct operations in our neighborhood without information or cooperation or collaboration. That lone ranger behavior has often not succeeded in many place.”
Obama must be extra careful with Somalia’s neighbors because a regional approach is the only sustainable option. He got lucky this time. Instead of calling for withdrawal like Ethiopia, AU members are calling for reinforcements as the war boils past unnatural levels. Soon after Niyonguruz’s death Nicolas Bwakira, the AU special representative for Somalia, said a wider AU mandate is necessary. Since America has no realistic option of putting troops on the ground, AU and possibly UN troops are Obama’s last defense.
Bwakira was echoed by Burudni Vice President Yves Sahinguvu, who said at the soldiers’ funerals, “The time has come to re-examine Amisom's [African Union Mission in Somalia] mandate so that we can have the power to act when and as necessary. We call today for more equipment, more financial means, reinforcements, and a stronger mandate which gives our troops the right to pursue if necessary.”
Another powerful endorsement came from Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who called for additional troops with UN ambassador Susan Rice looking on. His words were a gift to President Obama, but are they really as sweet as they sound? An AU force of 5,000 is all that stands between al-Shabab and Somalia’s transitional government, but Museveni didn’t say how many more troops he would like, only that al-Shabaab can be defeated if more troops are deployed in Somalia.
“The population in Somalia is against the terrorists, they are just imposing themselves,” Museveni said. While al-Shabab is deeply unpopular in parts of Somalia, it cannot operate as it currently does without support from the population. Though Somalia’s government may be the strongest its had in years, al-Shabab has become one of the most organized insurgencies Somalia has ever seen. The required AU troops will exceed anything African states have in mind.
“Burundian soldiers are today in Somalia,” said Sahinguvu, “and they will not leave this country until they have completed their mission with the help of the international community, the UN and the African Union.”
What is the mission though? With an estimated force of 10,000, including its allies, the AU could need 50,000 troops just to combat al-Shabab’s fighters, and this assumes American intelligence, logistics, and possibly weapons support. But counterinsurgency isn’t about fighting. Without properly resourced nation-building, a military solution will ultimately complicate the insurgency. Peacekeepers alone are helpless. Realistically, deploying new forces into Somalia is a bad idea, but the AU will likely push ahead to save face. At ill times the dark skies make room for new blackness.
Among those who stand to lose big in the new turmoil is President Obama.
He would be foolish not to learn a lesson from Saleh Nabhan’s death. A terrorist is dead, but Nahbhan groomed others to take his place. Obama has provoked the ire of al-Shabab, who leans more and more towards global jihadism with each drone strike, commando raid, and American arms shipment to the Somalia government. He’s sparked a political blood feud that will pass the bullets and bombs to African forces, who in turn vow revenge over counterinsurgency. Nabhan’s death touched off a reaction that will both increase the number of foreign troops and the frequency of al-Shabab attacks on foreign forces, an explosive combination and downward spiral.
The risk against the transitional government will rise at a most terrible time. Somalia wouldn’t be Somalia without one final punch to the gut. If al-Shabab returns to power even in a limited capacity then President Obama has a massive new headache.
In a recent video noted for its high production value, al-Shabab leader Ahmed Adbi Godane, codename Ali Zubeyr, shows himself shaking hands with a blurred out Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who he mocks for aiding his ascent. He prays to holy warriors in Palestine, the Arabian peninsula, Afghanistan and Pakistan over scenes of Mogadishu battles, demonstrating his deep commitment to global jihad. And just to be sure, he tells Osama bin Laden, “Receive glad tidings and rejoice, and we are awaiting your guidance in this advance stage of jihad.
Nabhan’s death and Abu Zubayr’s declaration are corollary. President Obama is making monsters in Somalia. His short-term minimalism compromises long-term stability - he can’t really help but he can hurt. He must halt his impulsive tactics before he prematurely creates another Afghanistan. One is obviously hard enough to manage.