How Will Obama Respond to the Uganda Attacks?

Al-Shabab's assault on Kampala could re-focus U.S. policy toward Somalia.

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.

Recently, however, things seemed like they might be changing -- just before the attacks happened. The Obama administration had begun a long process of rethinking Somalia strategy as part of its ongoing policy review. "This administration is really trying to get it right on Somalia," a State Department official told me. "But it's hard to get something like Somalia right."

With any luck, that process will continue in earnest now, and indeed, the State Department official called the Uganda attacks "a snap to attention." Analyst Ken Menkhaus, a professor of political science at Davidson College and a former special advisor to the U.N. operation in Somalia, told me, "There has been a new openness recently to a policy rethink on a fairly substantial level, and [now is] one of those moments where thinking more broadly about new policy options in Somalia is possible."

So what policy options are on the table today? The easiest -- and also the most dangerous -- would be targeted drone attacks against specific figures in al-Shabab. The political appeal of such an approach is clear: It's a strong response but doesn't carry the risks and costs of a longer-term engagement. (Think drone attacks in Northwest Pakistan against al Qaeda and Taliban forces there.) But the blowback with such an approach would also be severe. Al-Shabab has crafted its rhetoric around the idea of fighting against intervention, something that Somalia has had no shortage of since 1992. In that regard, popular opinion is in its favor. "Al-Shabab wants to conflate Islamism with Somali nationalism," one analyst told me, and a U.S. strike would give them fuel to feed anti-foreigner fires.

Another probable option is to scale up support for AMISOM, the beleaguered peacekeeping mission in Mogadishu. The peacekeepers today are the only thing keeping the country's feeble government from collapsing. ("If AMISOM leaves, the [government] leaves with it," a second analyst told me.) Bulking AMISOM up probably wouldn't do much to improve security, but it would show support for Somalia's transitional government. Not surprisingly, that seems to be what the country's Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke would like, in addition to more help of just about any kind. In a press release today, he "call[ed] on the civilized world to unite in stopping the mindless terror enterprise of Al-Shabaab -- which clearly is the Al Qaeda branch of Somalia."

The United States (and the West more broadly) does have one final option: doing absolutely nothing. It's more likely than it sounds. "This is about options," said the first analyst. "And the problem with the international community is that nobody sees any options." Nearly everyone who has tried to get Somalia policy right over the last 20 years has gotten burned, and no one is sure what to try next. "What's needed is a sophisticated and nuanced attack on networks inside and outside Somalia -- financiers, facilitators, business sympathizers, and the diaspora," says the second analyst. "But that's far too complicated and calibrated for most governments to have the stomach for."



Pakistan's Suspicious Public

Caught between a vicious Islamist insurgency and CIA drone strikes, Pakistanis are growing increasingly disenchanted with the Taliban. But they still hate the United States, too.

A series of militant attacks over the last week have sparked widespread anger in Pakistan. Suicide bombers killed 62 people at government offices in the tribal agency of Mohmand today, and last Friday, over 40 worshippers died in an extremist attack on the shrine of Hazrat Data Ganj Baksh, the country's most important Sufi place of worship.  In Pakistan, however, much of this outrage has been directed at Washington and Islamabad rather than at the terrorists.

"America is killing Muslims in Afghanistan and in our tribal areas [using drone attacks]," argued one Pakistani interviewed in the aftermath of the attack, explaining why the United States is ultimately to blame for the bombing. "[M]ilitants are attacking Pakistan to express anger against the government for supporting America." Similar sentiments have circulated widely on Pakistan's hugely influential private TV networks.

To understand this reaction, it is necessary to grasp the complexity of the domestic Pakistani debate about militancy. The good news is that, over the last 12 months, ordinary Pakistanis have decisively turned against the Taliban's religious agenda. The bad news is that Pakistanis have simultaneously become even more anti-American -- which in turn is distorting their perception of counterinsurgency.

Pakistani perceptions of the Taliban's religious program have shifted from tacit acceptance to revulsion. For a long time, the Taliban argued that they simply wanted to make the country more pious. Until 2009, most Pakistanis saw nothing wrong with that declared intention and largely opposed military operations against militant havens in northwestern Pakistan. Last year, 80 percent of Pakistanis approved of Islamabad's February 2009 truce with the Taliban, which ratified jihadi control over large areas of the North-West Frontier Province.

But after the brutality of the Taliban's "Islamic" rule became self-evident, Pakistani perceptions changed. Last October, Islamabad, acting with broad public support, launched a major offensive against Taliban bases in South Waziristan. It has since followed that up with other operations in the tribal areas -- for example, the Army is currently fighting in Orakzai.

Today, public approval of the Taliban has all but collapsed. According to polling conducted by Gallup last December, no more than 5 percent of the population in any of the country's four provinces believes that the Taliban has a positive influence on their lives, including a meager 1 percent in the North-West Frontier Province.

But these heartening developments have been accompanied by a contrary and troubling trend: the hardening of anti-American sentiment among ordinary Pakistanis. Of 28 countries polled by the Program on International Policy Attitudes for the BBC World Service in April, Pakistan was one of only two countries where a majority of the public held negative views of the United States. And in another Gallup survey, when asked to identify the biggest threat to their country, 59 percent of Pakistanis identified the United States, while only 11 percent named the Taliban.

Pakistani disenchantment with the United States has skewed public discourse about extremism. When Washington urges Islamabad to fight militancy, distrustful Pakistanis question whether counterinsurgency is really in their own national interests. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured Pakistan in a series of town-hall meetings last November, one of her talking points was that Washington and Islamabad were fighting a common terrorist enemy. But many Pakistanis rejected this contention. As one journalist told Clinton, "We are fighting a war that is imposed on us. It's not our war. It is your war."

At first glance, the stubbornness of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan can seem difficult to understand. After all, President Barack Obama's administration has made significant policy shifts in response to enduring Pakistani grievances with past U.S. administrations. For example, the United States is currently bolstering democracy by moving beyond an exclusive partnership with the Pakistani military and deepening relations with civilian political parties. Moreover, Washington has allocated unprecedented dollars for a wide array of development and infrastructure programs, including vital projects in the energy and water sectors.

But many of these laudable measures -- necessarily focused on long-term issues -- have yet to show tangible benefits. By contrast, Pakistanis are perpetually confronted by the coercive elements of U.S. power. Constant media reports on drone strikes, the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the operation of private mercenary agencies and spy networks in Pakistan fortify a decades-long narrative of the United States as hostile and anti-Muslim. Much of the media's reflexive demagoguery is made worse by credible reports of the local presence of organizations such as the security firm formerly known as Blackwater -- reviled throughout the Muslim world.

Some might argue that rising anti-Americanism in Pakistan is insignificant as long as the United States maintains strong ties to officials in Islamabad and can convince them to expand military operations against militants. But Pakistani suspicion of the United States is the Taliban's last remaining trump card: If it is allowed to fester, the insurgency might regain the public's indulgence.

These opinions have broad currency in part because Pakistan's political leaders have yet to craft a compelling counterterrorism narrative. Even worse, some mainstream Pakistani politicians have internalized the assumptions of Taliban propaganda. Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab and one of the most powerful politicians in the country, declared in March that the Taliban should refrain from terrorism in Punjab because his political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), had also "rejected dictation from abroad" -- implying the two groups shared a common purpose against the United States.

Instead of allowing extremists to frame the domestic debate, Pakistan's leaders should foster a vigorous discussion that honestly confronts the jihadi Frankenstein. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's call to bring together all major political parties for a national conference on extremism in the aftermath of the Data Ganj Baksh attack is a long-overdue step in the right direction. For its part, the United States should consider whether some aspects of its counterterrorism campaign -- such as the use of companies like Blackwater -- have more costs than benefits in terms of public perception. And both Washington and Islamabad need to collectively generate a narrative in which the two countries are seen to work in concert rather than in opposition. Otherwise, anti-American sentiment in Pakistan will function as a protective shield for extremists for a long time to come.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images