Africom has just a few hundred permanent, uniformed staff. Its mission is to deter and resolve conflicts ‘by building partner nation capacity,’ according to Vicki Huddleston, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs. More so than other US regional commands, Africom would heavily rely on offshore balancing, particularly its proxy component.
Inasmuch as Ethiopia’s US-enabled invasion of Somalia was an early test of this partial offshoring construct, it proved a failure.
In Somalia, the Ethiopian invasion and subsequent two-year occupation only served to rally the country’s Islamic extremists. Al Shabab coalesced from the remains of the ICU’s armed wing and launched a bloody, and surprisingly popular, insurgency against the Ethiopians.
Also targeted: the UN- and US-sponsored Transition Federal Government, formed under the protection of the Ethiopians, plus the new African Union peacekeeping force composed mostly of Ugandan and Burundian troops and funded by the United Nations and Washington.
Al Shabab also strengthened ties with al-Qaeda, which had sent operatives to advise clan forces during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and, more than a decade later, still maintained a small presence in Somalia. The al-Qaeda-Al Shabab alliance helped Al Shabab pull off a twin suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2010 that killed 74 people.
The Kampala attack was Al Shabab’s first foreign attack, but not its first suicide bombing. That came on Oct. 29, 2008, when 26-year-old, American-born Shirwa Ahmed blew himself up outside a government building in northern Somalia, killing more than 20 people.Ahmed was one of as many as 50 young, disaffected Somali-Americans Al Shabab has recruited mostly from the large Somali community in Minneapolis – and mostly by painting Al Shabab as freedom fighters against the Ethiopians. Ahmed was ‘as American as apple pie’ before Al Shabab got to him, according to an acquaintance.
The recruitment of Somali-American youths sparked fears that some young people might return to the United States to conduct terror attacks. In cooperation with leaders of the Somali-American community, the FBI launched a major operation to intercept returning recruits.
Al Shabab’s rise spawned the first large contingent of American-born international terrorists. That alone was reason for Washington to regret backing the Ethiopian invasion. ‘We’ve made a lot of mistakes and Ethiopia’s entry in 2006 was not a really good idea,’ Acting Assistant Secretary of State Donald Yamamoto said in a 2010 speech.
Although the Obama administration insisted that backing the Ethiopians was wrong, the new regime in Washington was still very much in favour of using proxies to advance US policy goals in Somalia. It was simply a matter of choosing better proxies.
A new constellation of US partners quickly aligned following the Ethiopians’ final departure in January 2009. As the Ethiopians retreated, Washington increased its support for the African Union peacekeepers, whose softer approach –plus the critical fact that they weren’t Ethiopian –meant they were less unpopular with everyday Somalis.
With training and logistics provided by US military personnel and DynCorp contractors, the African Union nearly doubled the size of its Mogadishu peacekeeping force to 9,000 troops. By the end of 2009, Washington had invested $135 million in the peacekeepers’ training, equipment and payroll.
With its Ethiopian protectors gone, in January 2009 the TFG collapsed. Many of its officials fled the country. Into the power vacuum stepped an unlikely new leader: Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate Islamist and former president of the ICU.
Counter-intuitively, Ahmed vowed a closer alliance with the African Union, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union. Washington was quick to back Ahmed as he reformed the TFG. ‘We’re in a very promising moment. It’s fragile, but all new beginnings are,’ a State Department official said.
In May 2009, Washington provided the TFG with $2 million to buy weapons on the local market. With millions of dollars in acknowledged and covert funding, Washington also bankrolled an Ethiopian programme to donate $250 per man plus guns, rockets and ammo to any Somali clan that could raise a militia force to fight Al Shabab – this according to Somalia Report, a new online publication run by famed war correspondent Robert Young Pelton.
On top of all that, between 2009 and 2010 Washington shipped, via DynCorp, nearly 100 tons of weaponry to Uganda for onward distribution to TFG fighters. US officials also pushed for the EU to offer training and funding for the peacekeepers and TFG forces.
Today, Ahmed’s TFG and the AU peacekeepers still represent the main fronts for US efforts to resolve Somalia’s two-decade crisis. As the famine worsens and pressure grows for Washington to play a larger role, the TFG and African Union will most likely be the vehicles for that intervention. ‘That's going to require an international response, and Africa will have to be a partner,’ Obama said of the famine on July 29.