Until yesterday, most every policymaker who works on Somalia thought -- or, at least, hoped -- that the damage from the country's implosion would remain within its borders. After two coordinated bomb blasts exploded in Uganda's capital of Kampala Sunday, however, the picture has permanently changed. Before, Somalia's Islamist group al-Shabab, a self-proclaimed regional al Qaeda affiliate that controls large swathes of the country, including much of Mogadishu, seemed like a threat to the Somali people and local aid workers but hardly anyone else. Now, after the attacks, al-Shabab has shown its ability to threaten its East African neighbors as well. It's a scenario that has kept East African counterterrorism analysts sleepless for years: a functional jihadist cell that can plan and execute civilian attacks internationally.
In Somalia's two-decade history of ungoverned chaos, it has been well-meaning foreign intervention -- whether military or political -- that has consistently refigured the country's course. Usually, for the worse. Now the attempt to address al-Shabab's broadening capabilities could kick off another round of international intervention in Somalia, with equally dismal results.
The threat from Somalia is hardly unexpected, or at least it shouldn't have been. "A number of capitals have been hoping that [an attack like this] wouldn't happen, or not on their watch," says one regional analyst who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of his organization. "It's going to awaken them to a threat. But it's not new. They were either in denial or ignoring it."
The U.S. government fell into this category for most of its long relationship with the East African country. As James Traub recently reported for Foreign Policy, the U.S. policy toward failed states in general and Somalia in particular, has been a muddle of short-term tactical aims devoid of long-term planning. In recent years, Washington has supported an Ethiopian occupation of Somalia, funded and armed a subsequent transitional government, carried out drone strikes against selective terrorist targets, and funded warlords to keep Islamists in check. Of particular interest was the U.S. assistance in bringing an African Union peacekeeping mission (known as AMISOM) to Somalia. That mission was cited as the trigger for al-Shabab's attacks in Uganda, since it was mostly staffed by Ugandan and Burundian troops (some of whom were trained and equipped by U.S. forces, according to U.S. State Department and military sources). Ugandan troops are also training fighters for the Somali government's army, with U.S. help.
Despite all of Washington's varied attempts to provide some order to Somalia, however, the general consensus among Somalia-watchers -- and indeed among some in the U.S. government -- is that nothing has really worked. Part of the problem may have been confusion over America's goals; aside from scoring small points in the long war on terror, they never seemed clear. Was the priority a stable Somalia -- which, if it ever comes, may well be under Islamic rule -- or was a secular government more important? Beyond the vagueness in strategy, the Somalia portfolio was a hot potato for various branches of the U.S. government, never truly owned by one agency.