US President Barack Obama had one task in the aftermath of Kampala’s bombings - keep the narrative anywhere except US strategy in Somalia. Blasting al-Qaeda for “racist,” cannon fodder tactics wasn’t just from the heart, but a calculated political tirade to absorb the media’s attention.
"What you've seen in some of the statements that have been made by these terrorist organizations is that they do not regard African life as valuable in and of itself,” Obama told the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). "They see it as a potential place where you can carry out ideological battles that kill innocents, without regard to long-term consequences, for their short-term tactical gains."
Obama then compared the visions of South Africa and al-Qaeda - hope and death - in an analogy designed to transfer the World Cup’s excitement to Ugandan soldiers. Implying that the African Union would bring stability to Somalia, Obama offered not a word on the conduct of AU troops in Mogadishu. He did, however, vow to support Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Ethiopia, and any other nation that decides to bolster the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) - statements that don’t seem to regard African life as valuable.
A steady stream of analysis, mostly from outside the US media, has cropped up after Kampala warning against escalating militarism. Fortunately the Washington Post also did some dirty work and monitored Uganda’s response in Mogadishu. Obama promised to increase aid to AMISOM, but the only noticeable affect so far is more destruction. Predictable given that no new political strategy has been formulated.
Somalis claim the AU, “has killed, wounded and displaced hundreds of Somali civilians in a stepped-up campaign against Islamist militants,” since the Kampala bombings.
Though spokesman Gaffel Nkolokosa claims, "AMISOM has never shelled indiscriminately at civilians," Somalis are no fools of war. They know the sounds of al-Shabab and AU guns and their positions, and are certain that government and AU forces indiscriminately shell their homes.
"When one kilogram of mortars are fired by al-Shabab, AMISOM replies with 100 kilograms of artillery," said Abdulqadir Haji, director of a volunteer ambulance service. "It is America and the West who support them. America and the West are the silent killers in Somalia's war."
Mohammed Jimal, a government military commander, “indifferently” explained, “Whenever the enemy are gathering on the front lines, they shell the area. It helps the government. There are civilian casualties. No one can deny this.”
When asked for comment, Mark Zimmer, a public affairs officer for Somalia at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, said Washington is "proactive" in trying to retrain AU soldiers from "inadvertently targeting civilians and increasing their sensitivity to avoiding civilian casualties." He argued that "al-Shabab has increased attacks of late, forcing AMISOM to respond."
So goes AU and US policy in Somalia.
The reality is that Zimmer’s logic, which is no different from Obama’s or most US officials, is illogical to many Somalis. All of a sudden Washington needs counterinsurgency 101 again: al-Shabab’s attacks don’t justify retaliatory fire into unverified civilian targets. Somalia isn’t any different from Afghanistan, where protecting the population is job one, and shelling the enemy’s front lines doesn’t help the government except to stave of its death.
To say al-Shabab operates in a civilian environment is simply redundant. Somalia hosts a guerrilla war and the AU/US challenge is to wage counterinsurgency, not stick futilely to conventional warfare.
"The people are saying, 'What is the difference between AMISOM and al-Shabab?'” said Hassan Elmi, a peace activist who lives near the airport where he hears between 200 to 300 shells fired each day. "You are killing me. And they are also killing me."
Somalis don’t see so big a difference between AU and al-Shabab soldiers as US officials do. Even Sunni militia and former government ally Ahlu Sunna Waljama'a, who hates al-Shabab with equal passion, derides AU troops as lazy, greedy, and too quick with the trigger.
The AU’s indiscriminate fire destabilizes US strategy from top to bottom. Playing into al-Shabab’s hands, Uganda and those willing to expand AMISOM face an impossibly hostile environment to stabilize, while the US’s image wallows in the gutter. Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) similarly bleeds its credibility. And civilian damage spirals out of control when the victims happen to be clan leaders and elders, widely considered the vital link in any practical resolution to the conflict.
“It was the Ugandans," declared one clan elder, Omar Sharif, as he stood in the blood-spattered rubble of a collapsed building. In a separate incident, neighborhood leaders demanded compensation for their losses but neither the African Union nor the government sent an official to visit their neighborhood.
"Our lives have no value," said Ali Amin Hadji, a clan elder. "We have been forgotten."
And not just by al-Shabab and al-Qaeda. The AU, and by extension the US, often operate “without regard to long-term consequences, for their short-term tactical gains." More troops and more denial will only add to Somalia’s chaos. It's already happening.