Why Somalia would make Afghanistan seem like Mr. Rogers' neighborhood for US troops

Sunday's Uganda bombings show that the threat of Somalia's Al Shabab is very serious, so what should the US do about it? The status quo is not working, but if you think Afghanistan is a quagmire, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Stephen Wandera/AP
Relatives of one of the Uganda bombings victims and hospital staff carry away a body on Tuesday in Uganda's capital, Kampala. Somalia's Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab group claimed responsibility for the attack – its first outside Somalia – that killed 76 people during the World Cup final on Sunday.

In the light of Sunday's horrific bombings in Kampala, Uganda, it was only a matter of time before proposals for a US-backed invasion and/or bombing of Somalia started popping up, along with less specific calls to do "more." A few thoughts on this:

  • If everything you know about Somalia you learned from Black Hawk Down, it's probably best that you stop providing commentary. You don't know the territory, you don't understand the political situation there, and it just makes you look ignorant to continue pontificating.
  • If you think Afghanistan is a quagmire, you ain't seen nothing yet. Somalia would make Afghanistan seem like a walk in the park on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.

The Al Shabab threat is real and it is very, very serious.

More than seventy people lost their lives on Sunday, and it's likely that more will lose their lives in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and/or Burundi before this is over.

OPINION: Obama musn't meddle in Somalia

Supporting the Somali government will not do much to mitigate the threat from Al Shabab. Let's be clear: Somalia's current, internationally-recognized federal government is a joke. It does not control its own capital city. It operated out of a hotel in Nairobi for several years. It would not exist were it not for the presence of foreign troops and substantial US backing.

As G. Pascal Zachary notes, we are long past due for a reckoning on America's policy vis-a-vis Somalia. The insistence on the part of the Department of Defense, the State Department, and the White House that the best means for stabilizing the situation involves maintaining Somalia's fictional territorial integrity represents the same sort of thinking that got us into a mess there in 1993.

So what should happen with respect to US policy in Somalia? A lot will depend on the decisions taken by the African Union at its summit in Entebbe next week. Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda have gone along with US plans for the region in exchange for support, training, and materiel. Will they be willing to continue to do so in light of the fact that Al Shabab now has the capacity to threaten civilian lives in their own countries?

Finally, there is the question of Somaliland, the autonomous entity in northern Somalia that has all the attributes of statehood save the most important one: international recognition. Somaliland just held successful elections that will apparently result in a turnover of power from one party to another.

It is a functioning state with a growing economy and a solid modicum of territorial control. It's long past time that the US stopped dithering around in Mogadishu and worked with those who are actually capable of governing in the Horn.

Zachary advocates for the recognition of three "autonomous provinces" in the region. Puntland is probably not strong enough to govern outside of a few strongholds, but Somaliland most certainly is. Recognition would allow the US to train Somaliland soldiers, and, more importantly, potentially provide a base for operations that is far more stable than the volatile border in Kenya.

Will doing so solve all the region's problems, particularly the threat from Al Shabab? Of course not. But it's high time we stopped kidding ourselves that the current M.O. will ever work. It won't.

In the days to come, look for Ken Menkhaus' thoughts on the current situation. Menkhaus is the smartest American academic working on Somalia today; I'm sure he'll have much to say.

--- Laura Seay blogs at Texas in Africa.

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