June 27, 2011

Spinning the Pentagon’s Counter-Terror Roulette: Yoweri Museveni

According to the entire world media, West to East, counterinsurgency has been run out of U.S. foreign policy. Now counter-terrorism is in again. Yet COIN was never really in, and CT never truly out. The Obama administration didn’t decide to ramp up military operations in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa only last week.

The Pentagon is simply exploiting an unwanted withdrawal from Afghanistan to justify the global expansion of Special Forces and CIA operations.

Compared to the $6.7 billion America spends each month on Afghanistan, shipping $45 million to Uganda and Burundi must seem a bargain to those fed up with U.S. nation-building abroad. In some ways it is. Documents obtained by The Associated Press reveal a $145.4 million package that Pentagon officials submitted to Congress last week, a fraction of the $117 billion proposed for Afghanistan's 2011 fiscal year. AMISOM’s recent momentum against al-Shabab is further maximizing the Pentagon’s latest aid: four RQ-11 Raven mini-drones, body armor, night-vision systems, communication gear and construction equipment. An additional sum in the hundreds of millions (the exact tally is unknown because of unfulfilled commitments and local corruption) goes to training Somalia’s fledging army and sustaining AU troops in Mogadishu.

When combined with U.S. Special Forces and a heavy naval presence off the Horn of Africa, Washington has managed to keep the rest of its troops off of deadly ground. This is the way most Americans prefer their government to address al-Qaeda’s threat.

However limited funding has produced a similar outcome as Afghanistan’s heavy lifting: a corrupt government, regional confusion and military stalemate. To be clear proxy funding is a necessary component of counterinsurgency. Problems arise when this dimension overtakes the political sphere. Nation-building from the ground up - Afghanistan and Somalia being prime examples - may be impossible in practice, except counterinsurgency doesn’t necessitate nation-building so much as frequent contact and sensitive understanding to the local populace. Above this local response lies the national and international response, which supersede military operations in successfully applied COIN.

Afghanistan never witnessed such a strategy emerge from General David Petraeus’s “anaconda,” a flow-chart outlining the various ways to squeeze insurgents.

It is assumed that U.S. troops have no business in Somalia. True or not, the West needs to do more than ship equipment to fix Somalia. June experienced severe political turbulence as the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) gained one more year on its mandate - and lost its popular Prime Minister in the process. Signed in Uganda under pressure President Yoweri Museveni, the Kampala Accord met fierce popular opposition in Mogadishu and continues to jam the TFG. Although Mohamed Abdhullahi Mohamed has been succeeded by his equally skilled deputy, Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, President Sharif Ahmed and Parliamentary Speaker Sharif Hassan Aden remain locked in political combat.

Over a third of the Transitional Federal Parliament has also lobbed a series of petitions at Aden. After the Speaker refused to hear a motion against the Kampala Accord, MPs drafted a new letter accusing him of treason. A vote of no-confidence is currently in the works.

Supporting Museveni militarily thus creates two fundamental risks. First, Museveni is perceived of intervening in Somali political affairs to protect military gains, a strategy that could backfire. Ugandan troops have avoided being tagged as foreign occupiers, but this risk increases if the Kampala Accord is left unresolved - or if Uganda again intervenes in the TFG’s internal politics. The Obama administration also hailed the agreement and urged Somali officials to move forward, only to find itself swamped in local politics. Washington is stuck on the wrong side of the Kampala Accord and must plug into the national debate.

At a geopolitical level Washington continues to ignore the lessons of the Arab Spring. Clearly the Pentagon believes that it can fund any regime with impunity; they can be dropped once their use expires. Although the AP reports that a record U.S. aid package to Yemen was put on hold, U.S. Defense and State officials claim that support is ongoing. None of the $200 million in military aid has been distributed, according to the AP, but it would follow $155 million that helped Ali Abdullah Saleh suppress his political opponents.

Conversely, a wiser Pentagon would have accepted the reality that unpopular regimes aren’t functional building blocks in the “War of Terror.” The Obama administration has managed to keep Saleh’s ruling party and security apparatus online, but this policy stands a high chance of collapsing in the end. While the current unrest facing Museveni isn’t extensive or organized to a point of existential threat, Uganda’s uprising appears resilient enough to create significant distortions in the country’s political fabric. Continue the crackdown and add another election cycle - all through the AU’s battle with al-Shabab - and the West will find itself chained to another unpopular dictator in an al-Qaeda haven.

This dependency is already running at a dangerous level in Somalia, where 5,000 of the 9,500 AU troops stationed in Mogadishu deployed from Uganda. The West needs Museveni too much and he’s acutely aware of this reality. He didn’t flinch in backing down the UN on the TFG’s mandate, nor does he hesitate to demand Western funds for his troops. America’s lack of alternatives isn’t the only reason that Museveni feels strong enough to crack down on Uganda’s uprising; his political position isn’t as weak as Gaddafi, al-Assad and Saleh’s.

Yet Museveni would need to be blind to miss the Pentagon’s support for unpopular regimes.

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