Somalia has finally “surprised” and “shocked” the world - predictability doesn’t make the obtuse international reaction any easier to digest. The bombings in Kampala are atrocious, but with inane reports like “Who is al-Shabab” and “al-Shabab wants to topple government,” the setup is clearly on too.
The lights have been switched off.
Reporting from the Western media is dangerously blacked out, distorting Somalia’s instability to generate the appropriate reaction in their populaces. Africa’s media offers a more complete account although it’s trending in the same direction. The possibility of military retaliation has quickly arisen as Western governments orchestrate the media machine to their best ability.
"The links between al Qaeda and al Shabaab are stronger," according to some brilliant analysis by David Shinn, former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia and “an expert on al Shabaab.”
Using public relations to deflect reality ends in futile strategy. Rather than illuminating Somalia, the Kampala bombing is being exploited like a mob fire. Why single out al-Shabab and al-Qaeda when so many other factors are equally to blame? “Evil terrorists" only explains so much. All the blame is being pinned on them in the heat of the moment.
All the blame is being pinned on them in the heat of the moment.
Thus Little attention has been given to the weak Transitional Federal Government, whose commendable attempt to survive has merely funneled US arms to al-Shabab. African experts recently testified to Congress that supporting the TFG without any oversight is doing more harm than good. Corruption remains rampant. No mention of child soldiers wielding US arms or heavy-handed, unpopular African Union (AU) troops untrained in counterinsurgency and responsible for plenty of indiscriminate civilian deaths.
The name “Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan,” al-Qaeda’s chief in Somalia, comes up sparingly and only to invoke the SEAL strike that killed him in September 2009. That al-Shabab and al-Qaeda officially allied together in February 2010 is left out - it's useless for people to know that targeted assassinations have minimal effect.
And scant reporting has downplayed Uganda’s recent deployment of 2,000 emergency troops to Mogadishu last week, as requested by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). Uganda’s story runs deeper than being one of two contributors (Burundi being the other) to the AU force and the deployment sparked fears that Ethiopia, generally disliked in Somalia, is on deck. Specific references that Somalia had reached a tipping point are just as scarce, usually the same copy-and-paste biography. Blackhawk Down hasn’t been referenced much either. None of Washington’s sordid history in Somalia is.
All the back-story to Kampala has been edited out, leaving it the hollow shell of a “pointlessly brutal” al-Qaeda attack. Just a freeze frame of the explosions and blood soaked American teenagers for Western consumption.
The tragedy in Kampala isn’t isolated, but orbits the larger tragedy in Somalia. This is an ongoing war. Uganda deployed more troops without a real strategy and al-Shabab retaliated. More troops beget more violence, as they’ve already started to do. One cannot expect Uganda or other African nations to deploy troops without consequence when blood has stained everyone's hands. Nor can one blame al-Qaeda for outmaneuvering America from Afghanistan into Somalia.
Unfortunately President Barack Obama has already pledged "any support and assistance" to Uganda. FBI teams are just the beginning, thus his decision will likely make the situation even worse. Lt. Col. Felix Kulaigye, the army spokesman for Uganda, told reporters, "Al-Shabab is the reason why we should stay in Somalia. We have to pacify Somalia.”
That type of mindset has brought and will continue to bring chaos to Somalia.
Glints of truth can be spotted amidst the smoke of Kampala. William Braniff, an instructor at the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, advises, "Regionalization of the conflict is a rational strategy for al Shabaab. They are stronger when there are foreign boots on the ground, and weaker otherwise.” We wonder where he is at a time like now.
Afyare Abdi Elmi, another al-Shabab expert, predicts of the bombing, “It will invoke an interventionist mood in the region and within the international community. This might create an atmosphere where Somalia is a free for all and a number of troops are invited and come and go."
Many Somalis themselves, much as they fear al-Shabab, also fear an overreaction from the West or Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia - all US allies.
Unfortunately none of this seems to matter. The world’s strategy up until now and its subsequent reaction offers few reasons to expect a sound counter-response. In fact the main possibility is that very overreaction. Washington officials closely monitoring the US and international media understand the threat of military retaliation is highly anticipated. But al-Shabab and al-Qaeda’s actions suggest that its bombing possesses dual motives: deterrence against additional forces and bait into the trap.
Either outcome serves their purpose. They expect retaliation and will strike US allies if attacked by US forces.
The West can keep blaming al-Shabab and al-Qaeda, but that won't stabilize the conflict. Though the temptation may be to perceive AU or US troops as liberators, given that al-Shabab’s popular support is low, they would likely be throwing dynamite in the fire. Going in is easy. Somalia needs a full-spectrum exit strategy.
The smart political play is thus amazingly the best counterinsurgency: fusing international an regional diplomacy into a tone-down reaction that doesn’t further inflame the region. We can only hope this paradox stems what could be the beginning of an international disaster.