Africa: Standing with Kenya and Somalia

Washington, DC — Last weekend’s attack by al Shabaab militants on Westgate shopping mall in Kenya should be a wake-up call that more work is needed to stabilize Somalia and prevent it from falling back into another long period of chaos and famine.

Carried out by the radical Somali group loosely affiliated with al Qaeda, the assault was not aimed at Kenya alone. It was an indirect attack against all of Somalia's neighbors, the five African countries contributing troops to the Somali peacekeeping force and the international community supporting Somalia’s stabilization efforts.

The main goal was to inflict mass casualties and punish the Kenyan government for joining the African peacekeeping force in southern Somalia. But the bold strike on a high-profile target and al Shabaab’s conspicuous use of social media throughout the four-day standoff also revealed its determination to garner increased international attention for its on-going fight in Somalia.

The siege was also meant to demonstrate that al Shabaab has not been completely defeated and retains the capacity to strike beyond Somalia's borders. Moreover, the group sought to embarrass Somalia's year-old government, and – most importantly – to weaken the resolve of those nations that have contributed to its progress over the past four years.

The success or failure of the Westgate operation, which killed citizens from at least a half dozen nations, will be determined by the response of the international community. The United States and other nations pulled out of Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital and main seaport, 20 years ago after 18 American soldiers were killed in the “Black Hawk Down” incident. The country deteriorated into a famine-plagued failed state ruled by warlords and became a safe haven for the leaders of al Qaeda in east Africa.

To protect Somalia’s ascent from those depths, the international community must continue and expand support in four key areas:

Support Somalia’s rehabilitation and its fledgling institutions:

After two decades of lawlessness, Somalia has begun to restore central government authority, improve security and revive the country's flattened economy. Over the past four years, Somalia has adopted a provisional constitution, and the Transitional Federal Government has peacefully given way to a recently-elected permanent government. There is a new president and prime minister and a smaller, better-educated parliament. This secular and democratically-oriented government poses a direct and serious threat to al Shabaab's efforts to establish a conservative jihadist state in Somalia.

The success of this re-establishment of government institutions is critical, and the international community is responding. Two weeks ago in Brussels, pledges of U.S. $2.4 billion dollars in reconstruction and development assistance over three years were made, including $1.5 billion by the European Union and $69 million by the United States. These funds will give the Somali government an opportunity to rebuild a society that provides an alternative to al Shabaab’s fundamentalism. The international community must fulfill these commitments.

Support Amisom, the African peacekeeping mission in Somalia:

Less than four years ago, al Shabaab's authority stretched across all of south-central Somalia, while the Transitional Federal Government controlled less than two square miles of Mogadishu and exercised authority over no major towns or regions in the south. Intervention by Amisom (the African Union Mission in Somalia) reversed that picture. Under Ugandan leadership, with troops from Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti and Sierra Leone, Amisom has driven al Shabaab out of Mogadishu and every major city in southern Somalia. The African peacekeepers have helped restore central authority in places that have lacked it for nearly two decades.

Amisom's efforts have significantly disbursed and impeded al Shabaab, but they have not defeated it – as the Nairobi attack demonstrated. European Union, U.S. and UN support for Amisom must continue until al Shabaab no longer poses a serious threat and Somali troops are able to secure the country.

Stand with Kenya:

Kenya has suffered a devastating blow, and its friends must move swiftly to aid its recovery. Although President Obama omitted Kenya from his June 2013 trip to Africa, the country has the largest economy in the region and is east Africa's commercial, financial, transportation, agricultural and industrial hub. Since its independence in 1963, Kenya has also been America's oldest, strongest and most reliable partner in the area, and Nairobi is home to the largest and most regionally important U.S. embassy in sub-Saharan Africa. As it did after the terrorist destruction of that embassy in 1998, the United States must assist Kenya today. So must the international community.

Expand counterterrorism cooperation in East Africa:

Under ever intensifying pressure in Somalia, al Shabaab is attracting more jihadists from abroad and will almost certainly attempt more attacks. Last week's operation was not their first mass casualty assault outside Somalia. On July 11, 2010, al Shabaab militants simultaneously detonated bombs at two restaurants in Kampala, Uganda, killing more than 70 people, including one American. Other countries contributing troops to Amisom might also be on al Shabaab’s target list. And mass casualty attacks in any of those countries will likely involve foreigners, including American citizens. Supporters of peace and stability must find ways to help east African countries threatened by al Shabaab to improve their border security and counter-terrorism programs.

By taking these steps to help Somalia consolidate its progress, the international community will be able to defeat al Shabaab and the violent extremists who have joined it. Kenya has suffered a serious shock because of its participation in Amisom. This is a time to stand firm with Somalia and the African countries that are trying desperately to prevent its return to the chaos that defined it for two disastrous decades.

Ambassador Johnnie Carson – a former United States ambassador to Uganda, Zimbabwe and Kenya – served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs from May 2009 until March 2013. He is now senior advisor to the president of the U.S. Institute of Peace.