July 15, 2010

Somalia's Tone Indicates Chaos

The moments after Turkey and Brazil secured their own nuclear agreement with Iran illustrate a basic political principle: tone counts. No sooner had America deemed the agreement insufficient and brushed aside Turkey and Brazil’s efforts that a counter-reaction began to form.

Though the agreement didn’t meet the international community’s standard, the general consensus from those states seeking to avoid military confrontation with Iran faulted Washington’s overly negative response to key developing powers. Its tone could have praised Turkey and Brazil for engaging the process instead of shutting them down, then looked for ways to combine their proposal with the West’s. US officials adopted softer language after facing this criticism (and Turkey’s increasing significance vis-à-vis Israel), but they were too late.

No fundamental difference existed in the two reactions except for the very first moments, critical in geopolitics and not to be missed.

A similar example is playing out in Somalia to deadly effect. Spikes in political activity could have followed the aftermath of Kampala’s bombings; leading through diplomacy requires only a change in mindset. But with West and Africa’s initial tone fixated on militarism, the opportunity for a full-spectrum counterinsurgency is being lost in the rush to “stabilize Somalia.” Thus it should be especially unsurprising when the conflict further degrades into a regional free-for-all with international reach.

Understanding the futility of Uganda’s 2,000 emergency forces is crucial - they lack decisiveness and thus generates instability - but swinging from one extreme to the other won’t solve the problem either. Today Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni declared, “Therefore this force... will be expanded and the African Union will be able to clean up this place.”

He’s urging the AU to send 20,000 troops “as soon as possible.”

"We are now going to go on the offensive and get these people,” Museveni vows. “We were in Mogadishu on the African Union mission to guard the port, airport and state house. But now they have mobilized us to look for them. In the past we were not involved in Somali affairs, now we are taking a big interest in these groups."

Though he may mean well Museveni’s threat is preposterous. The current AU force of 6,000 undertakes offensive operations against al-Shabab, not just retaliatory fire, both of which are notoriously heavy-handed. “Getting these people” translates to mere counter-terrorism when Somalia demands an intricate counterinsurgency. Drones aren’t the cure in such an undeveloped state.

Most problematically, 20,000 troops are as unlikely to prove decisive as 2,000. For reference Somalia is roughly the size of Afghanistan, still about half the size without Somaliland and Puntland, and its long coast obstructs an effective blockade. al-Shabab’s estimated fighting strength numbers around 5,000, al-Qaeda’s between 300-1,000. If Museveni wants to talk numbers he would need 100,000 +, a force both unrealistic in principle and likely impossible to control.

The AU, along with the West, still lacks a viable strategy to run military operations through.

Yet America appears eager to throw itself behind Uganda’s boasts, as if it wants to sink into Somalia and Afghanistan at the same time. One US official gave CNN the standard, “al-Shabab’s agenda is very similar to al Qaeda's agenda.” Frequent interactions with the Taliban and Hezbollah, which led to funding from Iran and Syria, are cited as key evidence, yet the flaw is evident. Hezbollah, connected to every major militancy on Earth, harbors no intent to strike any target except Israel.

Bruno Schiemsky, who authored the UN report in 2006, told TIME, "In 2004, I obtained strategy documents from within the Shabab which indicated their transnational agenda. Their long-term view is first control Somalia, then Yemen, then Saudi Arabia.”

But is al-Shabab’s final objective really to conquer Saudi Arabia? This seems far-fetched.

Though al-Qaeda obviously seeks international jihad, al-Shabab has only shown national and regional ambition. It needs international support to complete its national goal of an Islamic caliphate; there’s no guarantee that al-Shabab will strike outside its borders if it comes to rule. The threat stems from al-Qaeda turning the state into its new Pakistan, paralleling its relationship with the Taliban. This distinction has landed America in deep trouble in Afghanistan and Kampala is replaying like 9/11.

Rumors speculate that the White House opposes expanding AU troop levels, but U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley’s praise of Uganda after Museveni's 20,000 hints at a widening war.

"We commend the critical role that Uganda and Burundi continue to play to bring regional security to the unstable areas in east and central Africa,” he told reporters, “particularly through their leadership of the A.U. mission in Somalia.”

Somalia reached its current tipping point under Uganda and Burundi’s watch, though the fault is hardly theirs alone, and their plan to deploy up to four times as many troops on the ground will hasten the collapse of a dying star. The nation will fall into new despair and jettison exploding matter into neighboring states. al-Qaeda’s "Saleh Nabhan Brigade,” named after their fallen commander, has apparently been tasked with that singular assignment.

"I say to the Ugandan president what has happened in Kampala was only the beginning,” al-Shabab chief Sheik Muktar Abu Zubayr warned in a new audio tape. “We shall do more as AMISOM (the peacekeeping force) continue massacring our people. I would like to tell people of Mogadishu that Al-Shabab mujahideen will take revenge on your enemy AMISOM and do the same thing they do to you.”

Voice of America claims, “Security analysts say al-Shabab is hoping that by targeting residents in Kampala, the Ugandan leader will be pressured to withdraw his offer and all Ugandan troops from Somalia.” We predict the opposite - that al-Shabab and al-Qaeda are baiting Africa and ultimately the West into a war they can’t win. Everything traces back to al-Qaeda’s economic warfare.

While US President Barack Obama is busy condemning al-Qaeda and al-Shabab as “racists” who only create hatred, he would be wise to remember how low the AU’s popularity is in Somalia. Iraq’s mistaken plan to “be greeted as liberators” cannot be repeated despite al-Shabab’s low popularity, as foreign forces still enhance their strength. It doesn't matter that al-Shabab is using civilian casualties as an excuse - Somalis have no confidence in foreign soldiers operating without direction or oversight.

Obama’s rhetoric for public consumption may differ in private, but the danger of him believing himself remains high based on Washington's reaction. The bare truth is that AU soldiers aren’t trained for such daunting counterinsurgency. Allowing only the AU to engage in indiscriminate fire justifies more external attacks in al-Shabab’s eyes, hastening the region’s expanding militarization and speeding up the cycle of violence.

“We will keep revenging what your soldiers remorselessly did to our people,” Abu Zubayr continued. Your tanks destroyed the remains of our buildings in Mogadishu and we will also revenge that. What is called AMISOM has committed a nasty massacre in Mogadishu, worse than the ones committed before by the Ethiopians and Americans: constant shelling at poor civilian populations, tanks leveling what remained of Mogadishu buildings and machine-guns shot at public vehicles. All those were the habits of AMISOM.”

Obama clearly wishes to avoid this reality by targeting al-Qaeda. He later admits that Somalia does require a multi-national effort yet with US support to the TFG already failing, Obama still wants to leave the conflict in the AU’s hands when the conflict is beyond its power to resolve. A lack of urgency persists. Without an international, full-spectrum counterinsurgency equivalent to Afghanistan, the only certainty 20,000 AU troops bring is more death and destruction.

And US policy is listing towards that storm.


  1. http://realityzone-realityzone.blogspot.com/2010/07/obama-says-us-will-redouble-efforts.html

    Let me ask you a really crazy question.
    Is there any possibility at all that Egypt would send troops?

  2. Not crazy at all, Egyptian troops would probably make good peacekeepers in Somalia. Pakistan too, but then you have US fears of transmitting militant links. Pakistanis saved US in 1993, might be a good play, or Nigeria, even South Africa. Somalia needs some major military powers if US and EU want to stay out of the fight.