Western governments may consider the rising power of the militant group Al Shabab a major threat to the Horn of Africa. But they have learned enough from the ill-fated US military intervention of 1991-93 – portrayed in "Black Hawk Down" – to know that Western troops are not the solution.
Yet, as the Al Qaeda-backed fighters take control of much of Somalia's rubble-strewn capital, Mogadishu, there is certainly plenty of reason for the West and for democratic African countries in the region to be concerned. On Aug. 24, Al Shabab claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in a part of Mogadishu thought to be under government control, an event that killed more than 30, including six members of parliament.
Until the tottering three-year-old interim Somali government stands up to the challenge, the best hope for stability lies in the 6,000-strong African Union peacekeeping mission (AMISOM), manned primarily by troops from Uganda and Burundi and funded mostly by nations worried about the threat of a terror haven in East Africa.
"There are not many countries lining up to join this mission," says E.J. Hogendoorn, head of the Horn of Africa mission for the International Crisis Group in Nairobi, Kenya. "Everyone is concerned, but no one wants to be the one risking their forces' lives.
"Now we hear of reinforcements for AMISOM, but even the Ethiopian contingent numbered 40,000 troops, and they still weren't able to pacify the place," he adds. Ethiopia occupied Somalia from 2007 to 2008, when Al Shabab was less formidable.
It's not that Somalia has been free of foreign intervention. In the two decades since the fall of Somalia's last government, the country has accepted massive foreign food relief; today, half the population survives on foreign food aid. But foreign troops tend to strengthen the hand of extremist politicians of either the nationalist or religious sort, and the legacy of the US intervention and the Ethiopian invasion has been a network of warlords who are difficult to dislodge.
Sheikh Ali Mohamoud Rage, Al Shabab's spokesman, said on Aug. 24 that Al Shabab would be starting a war against "invaders" – referring to the Ugandan and Burundian forces in AMISOM.
Uganda, which recently suffered a string of Al Shabab suicide attacks in Kampala, has pledged to add troops to the mission, and there are rumors South Africa may contribute to the overall protection force.
But AMISOM has said the solution will have to come from Somalia's government. The transitional government has been adding troops in preparation for an offensive against Al Shabab, many of them trained by the European Union in Uganda. Moderate Islamist militias have made headway against Al Shabab in central Somalia.
"We have to dissipate the perception that AMISOM is looking for more soldiers to fight Al Shabab," said AMISOM spokesman Maj. Barigye Bahoku. "Our mandate is to maintain peace and create an environment for national discussion and political settlement. We cannot directly confront Al Shabab, but we have the right to self-defense when we are attacked."