Somalia: America needs to engage

Last Sunday, during the World Cup final, suicide bombers struck two targets in Kampala, Uganda, killing 74 people and turning a global celebration into an unspeakable tragedy. The Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for the attacks, which targeted both a rugby centre frequented by foreigners and an Ethiopian restaurant. The bombers targeted Uganda because it is a leader in the African Union-led military force in Somalia backing the country's unpopular and fragile western-supported government.

The bombings demonstrate that al-Shabab, the former militia wing of the Union of Islamic Courts – the ruling group deposed by the US and Ethiopia in late 2006 – is a potent force that has the ability to strike outside of the country. It should also show the United States the perils of its Somalia policy.

There was a tentative optimism when the US-backed Ethiopian forces withdrew from Somalia early last year. The US had both a new administration in power that was talking of engagement with the Muslim world and an American president of East African decent. Somalia had a Sufi president with a certain degree of popular support, whom the Americans had been fighting only two years before. That America allowed him to take power demonstrated that the US was learning that anyone wearing Islamic clothes and quoting the Qur'an was not necessarily a "bad guy". The US could have seized the moment and committed robust grassroots diplomatic efforts to bring Somalia's disparate clans, factions and religious sects together to form a new Somalia and end the suffering of its people.

Instead, the US perpetuated the mistakes made by the previous administration. The US had assumed it could back an invasion and occupation of Somalia with intelligence, arms, special forces and air strikes, and then retreat to the background, monitoring the country from a fortified American base in Djibouti and from Langley through the eyes of its drones.

In the place of a firm United States commitment, Somalia got the African Union (AU), which, under the leadership of Uganda and Burundi and pressure from the west, committed 6,000 troops intended to stabilise the country. Upon entering the fray, AU soldiers were engaged in fierce combat and seen as occupiers. Somalis frequently blamed the foreign African forces, many of which had been trained by the US in Uganda, for the deaths of numerous civilians in markets and mosques. The New York Times recently alleged that those trained in Uganda by the Americans to fight al-Shabab included child soldiers.

The American reliance on the AU for a task so intimately linked to American interests and security is illogical and irresponsible. However noble, the AU lacks the resources and cultural knowledge of Somalia, including an understanding of Islam, to be effective. Relying on nations like Ethiopia, Uganda and Burundi to operate in Somalia is akin to taking a battalion of Indian soldiers, giving them the stamp of the UN, and sending them to occupy and pacify the Pakistani tribal areas.

Al-Shabab has gained strength in part due to the desperate situation in Somalia, which the UN has described as a "humanitarian catastrophe". The numbers of Somalis affected by the chaotic aftermath of the US-backed invasion are staggering. In mid 2009, Reuters reported that 80,000 Somalis had died since the invasion, a number that has undoubtedly risen substantially. Currently, nearly 4 million Somalis are in need of immediate food aid in order to survive, around half the nation's population. In addition, 1.5 million Somalis have been internally displaced, and hundreds of thousands of additional refugees have continued to flow into surrounding countries like Kenya. It is no wonder that many Somalis have continued to turn their backs on the west.

The implications of such human tragedy go far beyond East Africa. In the United States, some Somali Americans have felt compelled to return to their country of origin to battle with those they see as contributing to this situation. And in an American court, Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani Times Square bomber, cited not the Qur'an but US policy in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen as motivating him to want to blow up New Yorkers.

There is considerable malaise, ignorance, confusion and even apathy in Washington when it comes to Somalia policy. Policymakers, drained and distracted by Afghanistan, seem to now favour a patchworked combination of more AU troops (2,000 additional soldiers have just been pledged) and ramping-up of American drone strikes. This is not an effective solution.

Despite Somalia's problems, we should never despair or lose hope. With a change in western strategy and an adjustment of the mission of the African Union, the tide can be turned. The US needs to become much more involved at a local level, reaching out to tribal leaders and adopting a zero-tolerance approach to civilian causalities (as General Stanley McChrystal did effectively in Afghanistan). This will win friends for America and help swing the public opinion away from al-Shabab's rigidly literalist version of Islam, which is alien to Somalia. Stabilising Somalia in this fashion would also help to end the scourge of piracy off the country's shores.

If the US continues to insist that Somalia is not its responsibility but an "African problem", however, al-Shabab will continue to strike murderously and with impunity, dragging the rest of Africa and the world along with it.

Frankie Martin, Ibn Khaldun chair research fellow at the American university in Washington DC.