JULY 14, 2010: The Uganda bombings: al Shabaab's agenda and ramifications beyond the terrorism dimension

The Uganda bombings: al Shabaab's agenda and ramifications beyond the terrorism dimension

SOURCE: Institute for Security Studies (ISS)

By Festus B. Aboagye

The suicide bomb blasts in Kampala, Uganda, on the night of the much-awaited FIFA World Cup final between Spain and The Netherlands, has served to [re]-focus attention on the tenuous security situation within the Horn of Africa.

As a matter of course, attention in political, diplomatic and media circles has focused on the terrorist dimension of the tragic blasts that have so far claimed about 74 innocent lives, besides scores of 'collateral' injuries and damage to property and livelihoods. As a colleague wrote in this media, the attacks – thought to be the work of suicide bombers of the al-Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militia from south and central Somalia – served as a grim reminder of the devastating consequences of terrorism.

There is no doubt about the veracity of this statement and the terrorism dimension. Indeed, as the group's spokesperson, Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, has admitted, the only reason for al Shabaab's choice of Uganda as a target in the violent armed conflict for political power in Somalia, is because that country (and Burundi), are the key nations that have responded to the call to contribute peacekeepers to the beleaguered, estimated more than 5 200 AU Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) since 2007. Between the two nations, the contributions are almost equal at 2 700 and 2 550 troops respectively.

However, whether the attack was calculated by al Shabaab punishment for Uganda's peacekeeping role or not, the response from the Ugandan authorities that it would not withdraw its peacekeepers from Somalia and from AMISOM, should also serve to underscore the need for attention to be focused not solely on the terrorist, but other crucial dimensions of regional security.

First, we need to recall that in making good its warnings for attacks against Uganda, al Shabaab has given credence to future threats of such attacks by Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Even though a similar Al Qaeda threat against the deployment of foreign forces in Sudan's Darfur region in 2007 is yet to materialise, the fact remains that the protagonists continue to receive critical support to prosecute their war aims and plans.

Thus, the attack sends a powerful warning message to institutions and nations that are either already dabbling in the conflict, or considering to contributing towards regional and international efforts at bolstering the peacekeeping efforts. This is thought to be case in view of the fact that the UN is known to be providing support to AMISOM and considering strategies for taking over the peacekeeping mandate. The attack is therefore very much against international efforts at restoring peace and stability in Somalia, by dissuading states from making such contributions to the peacekeeping and other interventions.

The view is that given the weakness of some African states and the fragility of some of its democracies, not many AU member states would be convinced about the political wisdom of making such contributions. Their political calculations will be to avoid political oppositions from gaining capital that could be invested to unseat incumbent governments, or at least make life uncomfortable for them.

Second, the attack is a continuing reminder that the Somali conflict, though internecine and intrastate in nature, is an armed conflict with clear ramifications for regional and international security. Al Shabaab's choice of the attack against Uganda appears to have aimed at the centre of gravity of regional and international 'resolve'. But considering the fact that the international community has shown and continues to show dramatic lack of concerted resolve in dealing with the Somalia debacle, the attack provides some insights into al Shabaab's strategic calculations at weakening whatever little is left of such regional and international resolve.

The writing may be on the wall for Burundi, especially, to take all measures to avert a repeat of such an attack being perpetrated against Bujumbura. For Ethiopia, whose nationals were victims in the attacks, al Shabaab seems to be taking reprisals for its unilateral intermittent incursions into Somalia, as part of its policy of dealing with insurgent threats to its sovereignty. Perhaps in the case of Eritrea, which is reported to be providing support to al Shabaab, the casualties to it nationals, may be a hard lesson that allies in arms are not necessarily insulated from the activities of their proxies.

Third, Al Shabaab's tragic attacks are a pointer to the anachronism of the cold war doctrine of peacekeeping. It is also a lack of proper attention to one of the key recommendations by Lakhdar Brahimi in 2000.

In the new post-cold war battle spaces of intrastate armed conflicts involving fragile regimes and non-state actors with credible cross-border support from states and other entities, [robust, integrated] peacekeeping is never going to be or provide an effective, timely solution to such conflicts as in Somalia. The layered division of labour that shifts the responsibility in keeping a non-existent peace in Somalia to regional organisations, and as a means to maintaining international peace and security, is not a recipe for success.

Fourth, but even if the international community wish blindly to continue to place faith in the efficacy of peacekeeping, it ought to pay heed to what Brahimi said. Using post-Siad Barre's Somalia in the mid-1990s as a good case in point, Brahimi obviously was attributing failure of [UN] peacekeeping missions to a tendency to deploy where conflict had not resulted in victory for any side, where a military stalemate or international pressure or both had brought fighting to a halt but at least some of the parties to the conflict were not seriously committed to ending the confrontation.

And if we should pay heed to Brahimi then we should be reminded that once deployed, peacekeeping missions must have the right mandate and means (resources) to do the job, including ensuring force protection.

But the plain fact is that the situation in Somalia now, as before, provides a scenario of 'no peace to keep' and therefore a non-intervention option. Therefore, in order to guarantee a fair chance of success, any intervention in that country should be more than just peacekeeping, especially in its current configurations.

To the contrary, the situation in Somalia is 'war' and that is how regional and international actors should approach it. Perhaps, we ought to be reminded of what the Karl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian military thinker had to say on war, that: the fact that war is a horrible thing does not mean that we must roll … swords into ploughshares for sooner or later, some one will come along and hack off our ears.

Lastly, the international community (and regional actors) need to rethink the doctrine of humanitarian and security interventions. They must revisit the mistaken disengagement from Somalia in the mid-1990s and pick up the pieces from where the UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) II and the US-led United Task Force (UNITAF) left off. Among others, they will need to establish a comprehensive, coherent political, security, humanitarian and economic intervention strategy to leverage the situation in Somalia from war to [the] peace and eventually, hopefully, to [generic] peace.

In the short term, the focus should be on credible security intervention. At the same time however, all political and diplomatic means should be exploited to de-label al Shabaab and other warring factions as spoilers, legitimise them as key stakeholders in the balance of power in Somalia, and bring them to the negotiating table.

Unless they can be comprehensively defeated, not to pursue either or both of these strategic options now will mean losing more precious little time, and an irrecoverable initiative in Somalia, in the grand war to combat the causes and sources of international instability and insecurity.

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