The terror attacks in Kampala have highlighted the Obama administration’s uncertainty over how to respond to the Al Shabaab insurgency, a leading US Africa policy analyst says.
“I don’t think the administration knows what to do about Somalia,” comments Princeton Lyman, a former US ambassador to South Africa and now a scholar at the non-governmental Council on Foreign Relations.
The United States “can’t just walk away from a government it recognises,” Mr Lyman says, but adds that the current US approach is not succeeding.
He suggests Washington could try to apply “an Iraq-type strategy in Somalia,” whereby some clans would be persuaded to fight against Al Shabaab.
Unlike in Iraq, however, the US has almost no presence on the ground in Somalia, Mr Lyman notes.
It is thus unlikely that US policy will change much in the short-term, he says.
A State Department official meanwhile told The EastAfrican that Al Shabaab’s attack in Kampala “furthers our resolve” in backing the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the African Union military mission in Somalia (Amisom).
A senior Obama administration official added in a press briefing last week that the US needs to “build up the capabilities of Amisom as well as the TFG.”
The State Department official said separately, however, that “it may be premature to start translating these attacks into an increase” in Amisom’s strength.
The African Union’s recent call for a four-fold expansion of Amisom’s current 5,000-troop level will be discussed at an AU summit in Kampala later this month, this official added.
A spokesman for the US National Security Council meanwhile told The EastAfrican that US Attorney General Eric Holder and the State Department’s top Africa specialist Johnnie Carson are scheduled to attend the AU summit.
The Obama administration is unequivocal in ruling out the option of withdrawing support for the TFG.
Reporters taking part in last week’s White House-organised press briefing were told by one of two US officials on hand the Kampala bombings show that “what we’ve seen in Kampala is a good example of why that’s not a viable way forward.”
The official was referring specifically to a Council on Foreign Relations report earlier this year by Somalia expert Bronwyn Bruton, who called for “constructive disengagement” from Somalia on the grounds that the TFG does not deserve continued US underwriting.
To Ms Bruton, the Kampala bombings validate her view that the TFG is incapable of defeating Al Shabaab.
Increasing US aid to the TFG would amount to “rewarding incompetence,” Ms Bruton said.
The Kampala attacks should be taken as a warning of the futility of escalating Amisom’s involvement in Somalia, she added.
Al Shabaab’s killing of World Cup fans in the Ugandan capital was meant as “direct retaliation for the plan to increase the number of peacekeepers on the ground in Somalia,” Ms Bruton said.