The presence of foreign troops in Somalia allows al-Qaeda-linked militants to pose as nationalist champions with a mandate for the kind of devastating attacks Mogadishu witnessed on Tuesday.
So say critics of African Union (AU) peackeepers, who argue the outside world should disengage militarily from a nation whose fractious clans often close ranks against outsiders.
A pull-out would deprive the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab of a foreign enemy whose presence has earned the group recruits and financial support at home and in the large Somali diaspora.
In the withdrawal’s wake, the Islamist group would soon be destroyed by rival clans rushing to resume a long power struggle in the Horn of Africa nation, which has lacked a government for two decades, these Western and Somali commentators say.
Critics of the 6 300-strong AU peacekeeping force aired these arguments again following Tuesday’s audacious al-Shabaab attack on a hotel in Mogadishu that killed at least 31 people.
The force’s defenders tend to reply that these assertions are simplistic, and that al-Shabaab, which has succeeded in recruiting hundreds of foreign fighters and imposed a harsh version of Islamic rule, will not be so easily quashed.
They note it holds central and southern swathes of the country and many districts of the capital, and is a sometimes astute player of Somalia’s complex clan politics.
No military solution
The attack was the second major operation in as many months by the group, following a bomb attack on the Ugandan capital Kampala last month that killed more than 70 people and was the first by Somalia’s Islamist rebels on foreign soil.
Critics argue that the AU- and Western-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) the troops are there to defend is simply not worth it. It is widely seen as corrupt, incompetent and lacking both legitimacy and popular support.
Bronwyn Bruton, a governance specialist with the US Council on Foreign Relations, calls the approach “constructive disengagement” and says there is no military solution.
“Attempts to meddle only make things worse,” she said.
She and other critics say the TFG is a lost cause, and lament an agreement by African leaders to send an extra 4 000 peacekeepers to Somalia in the wake of the Kampala blasts.
“More danger and disaster looms,” said another critic, Abdi Samatar, of the University of Minnesota.
He said a bigger AU force would help if there was a legitimate and competent government but this was not on the cards for now.
“The agenda of increasing boots on the ground may have the unintended effect of increasing support for [al-]Shabaab,” said Laura Hammond of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
The AU’s supporters reply that pulling out troops will not automatically make al-Shabaab go away.
Andre Le Sage, Senior Research Fellow for Africa at the US National Defence University, said constructive disengagement was “extremely problematic” because it assumed there were moderates in al-Shabaab who could be approached and talked to.
“In al-Shabaab it is the hardliners who drive the train,” he said. “We need to substantially increase diplomatic engagement. In the absence of such engagement, al-Shabaab is deepening its control.”
‘Something like the Taliban’
“Somalis don’t support al-Shabaab militancy. But if you leave Somalia under the control of al-Shabaab for a decade or longer, then it’s possible something like the Taliban could emerge in a new generation.”
Rather than disengaging or rushing towards military action, peace-making required international pressure on the TFG to engage in political deal-making that co-opted key sub-clans and powerful figures, he said. Done right, this would lay the groundwork for effective security operations at a later stage.
Sally Healy, a Somalia expert at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, said the Kampala attack had produced renewed attention on Somalia, and foreign powers would continue to support African states in pressing for Somali peace.
“After the Kampala bombing there’s a sense in the region that African countries cannot stand idly by,” she said.
A US official said last month that Washington was studying ways to foment division in the al-Shabaab without inflaming anti-foreigner feelings that could cause a closing of ranks.
Al-Shabaab is a patchwork of networks including foreigners who favour al-Qaeda and nationalistic Somalis, analysts say.
The official said sowing rifts inside al-Shabaab was a delicate task due to sensitivities about foreign involvement.
“We know nothing galvanises Somalis like an outside influence … if we do something in an imprudent manner,” the official said. – Reuters