A Growing Challenge for America’s Somalia Policy

In the early hours of Jan. 5, the al Qaeda-affiliated
terrorist group al-Shabaab attacked a joint Kenyan-American military base in
Manda Bay, Kenya, where several hundred American troops and military
contractors live and work. The U.S. confirmed
that three Americans—one serviceman and two contractors—were killed, several injured,
and a number of aircraft damaged.

Al-Shabaab operates primarily in Somalia. It rose to prominence
in 2006, and at one point controlled swathes of the country. But its frequent
attacks against neighboring states prompted an offensive by the multinational
peacekeeping force, the African Union Mission in Somalia, which drove
al-Shabaab from most of its strongholds.

Since then, the fight against al-Shabaab has ground into a stalemate.
The multinational peacekeeping force has too few troops to hold liberated areas
and continue the offensive, and the Somalia National Army, despite years of
training and investment by many countries, is too ineffectual to pick up the
slack. Al-Shabaab controls parts of southern Somalia, derives tens
of millions of dollars
yearly through extortion, and launches devastating
raids
in many parts of the country, including the capital, Mogadishu.

It is in this context that the group attacked the Manda Bay
base. The U.S. uses Camp Simba, as the base is also known, to launch
surveillance aircraft, which may have been the target
of the attack
, and to train Kenyan forces fighting al-Shabaab in Somalia.
The terrorist group is active in the area, and its desire and capacity to hit
Camp Simba is unsurprising.

What is surprising is that the group was able to penetrate
the base’s perimeter before being repulsed by Kenyan and American forces. Al-Shabaab
has a high-end skill set and has overrun a number of adversaries’ military bases
over the years, and in such a dangerous area the U.S. should have anticipated a
capable assault from the group at some point. Soon after the attack, the
Department of Defense announced
it was deploying elements of the East Africa Response Force to strengthen the
base.

The attack also highlights a growing challenge for the
U.S.’s Somalia policy. Suppressing al-Shabaab for the long-term will require
the Somali government to deliver competent enough governance to persuade
Somalis to resist or at least not acquiesce to al-Shabaab. Yet the government
so far has embroiled itself in a series
of political squabbles
, especially with its constituent federal member
states, over power sharing, rather than focusing on the staggering challenges
the country faces.

American and others’ military strikes currently keep
al-Shabaab mostly at bay, but the window of opportunity that has given the
Somali government will not remain open forever. Washington needs to continuously
monitor whether Mogadishu is making
sufficient progress
to warrant further support. Indefinitely backing a
government that never will be legitimate in Somalis’ eyes would distract the
U.S. from supporting other possible solutions there and give the government
little reason to improve.

For now, the U.S. should continue aiding Mogadishu as
al-Shabaab has not fully recovered from its losses years ago, meaning there is
still an opportunity for the federal government to do better. Washington must
ensure Mogadishu clearly understands the progress the U.S. expects and hold it
accountable if it fails. Otherwise, the U.S. and its regional allies will have
to continue fending off deadly attacks from al-Shabaab into the foreseeable
future.