One could argue that the U.S. was playing a dangerous game when it killed a suspected top al-Qaeda leader in a brazen daytime helicopter raid in Somalia earlier this week. While the Americans swoop in and carry out targeted strikes such as this, the African Union peacekeeping mission to the country (called the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM) remains stymied on the ground, undermanned and vulnerable, its troops bearing an unenviable and almost impossible task. In a country that has been in chaos for nearly 20 years, what peace can 5,000 Burundian and Ugandan soldiers possibly keep?
The Shabab, the hard-line Islamic militia that controls much of the capital, Mogadishu, and southern Somalia, promised swift revenge for the killing of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was wanted in the 2002 bombing of an Israeli-run hotel in Mombasa, Kenya. That retaliation came Thursday, Sept. 17 and the AMISOM force was the target. Suicide bombers in two stolen U.N. trucks packed with explosives drove into the AMISOM compound in Mogadishu and blew themselves up. Seventeen soldiers, including the Ugandan deputy force commander, were killed. Four civilians also died.
"We have [gotten] our revenge for our brother Nabhan," Shabab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rage said afterward, according to Reuters. "We knew the infidel government and A.U. troops planned to attack us after the holy month. This is a message to them."
A message indeed. The attack was the deadliest against the peacekeepers since their operation in Somalia began two years ago. It follows a similar attack on Feb. 22 in which a suicide bomber posing as a contractor blew himself up at the same AMISOM base in Mogadishu, killing 11. The Somali government says the insurgents have also stolen at least eight U.N. vehicles in recent months. Six remain missing.
Coming so quickly on the heels of Nabhan's death, Thursday�s bombing raises the question of whether American intervention in Somalia is undermining the Somali President's ability to woo the moderate Islamists whose support he'll need to restore peace in Somalia. The U.S. does not seem ready to abandon the country anytime soon. During her seven-nation tour of Africa in August, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Somali President Sheik Sharif Ahmed a symbolically potent occasion, given that he had once opposed the U.S.-backed Ethiopian troops that invaded Somalia in 2006 to try to defeat the Islamists. The Americans will most likely continue to launch targeted strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants and keep sending weapons to Ahmed's transitional government, as the U.S. State Department confirmed it did in June.
"In retaliation, the insurgents will rain hellfire down on any representative of the international community [in Somalia], whether it is peacekeepers or humanitarian-aid organizations," says John Prendergast, a Horn of Africa expert and head of the Washington-based Enough! Project, which works to end genocide. "The U.S. got their high-value target, but the price to Somalia and to those trying to stabilize it will be very high. It is a cost-benefit analysis that defies easy assessment."
Meanwhile, the AMISOM peacekeepers will struggle on the ground, continuing to wait for the hardware and financial support they were promised. Soon after Thursday's attack, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack "in the strongest terms," and the U.N. Security Council did the same, reaffirming its support for AMISOM. But even if the peacekeepers sitting in Mogadishu ever get word of that support, they probably won't think too highly of it. According to its mission statement, AMISOM is supposed to be preparing the way for the introduction of a U.N. peacekeeping force into the country. At the moment, AMISOM is not in position to do any such thing.
The AMISOM force is supposed to have 8,000 troops, but other African nations that pledged to send soldiers have so far not done so. It is a telling sign that the links on the AMISOM website for "activities" and "peace process" both lead nowhere. AMISOM officials have adopted a fatalistic tone but insist they will remain in Somalia.
As ineffective as the AMISOM force is, however, Somalia�s weak transitional government isn�t doing much better. The President is holed up in a villa in the capital, and the army has so far been incapable of mounting a serious offensive against the Shabab. The best thing to be said about the government is that it still exists.
"A lot of [Somalis] are against the Shabab, but it doesn't seem the government is taking advantage of this by reaching out to clan elders and trying to drain the support from under their feet," Nurudin Dirie, a Somalia analyst and onetime candidate for President of the breakaway Somali region of Puntland, tells TIME.
"I'm expecting this government not to make things worse," he says. "I'm not under the illusion that this government, or the one after that, or even the one after that, will bring stability to Somalia."