By Stephen Kaufman
Washington - The top U.S. envoy to Africa says the July 11 bombings in Kampala, Uganda, constitute a "wake-up call" to East African nations and the international community, warning that continued instability in Somalia now can affect that country's neighbors in the form of terrorism, as well as through continuing illegal arms smuggling and refugees.
Speaking to reporters July 27 from Kampala, where he is attending the African Union (AU) summit, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said the attacks, claimed by the Somali extremist group al-Shabaab, mark the first time that the group has used suicide bombing techniques outside of southern and central Somalia.
"This constitutes a threat, and I think the regional states are genuinely concerned about the capacity of Shabaab to do this, its ability to move in the region to do it, and its willingness," Carson said.
If al-Shabaab could strike the Ugandan capital, located several hundred kilometers away from Somalia, "it also is a threat to all of Somalia's regional neighbors, from Djibouti and Ethiopia and Kenya all the way down to Tanzania," he said.
Because al-Shabaab is affiliated with al-Qaida, the international community also has to take the threat seriously, Carson said, recalling al-Qaida's 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and its 2002 attacks against Israeli targets in Mombasa, Kenya.
In order to limit the capacity of al-Shabaab to operate in the region, Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) needs to be strengthened, Carson said. He also said the United States thinks that Somalia "has been neglected by the international community," and that American diplomats at the AU summit had taken the opportunity to raise the issue with African nations as well as the United Nations and European Union representatives to "look at how to develop a strategy to help strengthen the Djibouti peace process" and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force.
"I think that it is time for the international community to act on its past promises and commitments and support the [Intergovernmental Authority on Development] nations, the Djibouti peace process and the AMISOM mission that is on the ground," he said.
According to news reports, the African Union decided July 27 to allow AMISOM to add 2,000 troops to its current 6,300-member force. The organization also decided to lift the cap that had held AMISOM to an 8,100-troop maximum.
Carson said that there had been discussion at the AU on how to provide AMISOM with better artillery and counter-battery measures in an effort to limit the prospects and possibilities of civilian casualties.
While harm to civilians is neither "desirable or acceptable," Carson said civilian casualties are sometimes an unfortunate reality of conflict.
"I think that some of the tactics employed by al-Shabaab are responsible for some of the civilian casualties that have been reported in the press," he said, particularly when the group "moves in and out of market areas, in and out of civilian residential areas with the clear intent of using those markets and those residential units where civilians reside as a place where they can launch ... mortars and fire their weapons."
The AMISOM troops are aware of this and are exercising precautions, Carson said. They are also aware of their need for more accurate weaponry, as well as better intelligence collection so that they can take preemptive action against al-Shabaab.
The U.S. ambassador to the AU, Michael Battle, added that among the summit participants there is "a very high level of consciousness about trying to make sure that collateral damage is significantly reduced."
AMISOM is trying to increase its capacity to push al-Shabaab farther away from the center of Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, he said.
"By AMISOM being able to increase its numbers and to push al- Shabaab further and further away from highly populated centers, that also will reduce along with the technological counterbalances the number of civilian casualties," Battle said.
In March, Carson estimated that U.S. support for AMISOM has been "in the neighborhood of $185 million" ( http://www.america.gov/st/peacesec-english/2010/March/20100312160231esnamfuak3.889102e-02.html ) since August or September 2008.
Carson said the United States has "supported the acquisition of nonlethal equipment to the governments of Burundi and to Uganda in particular," as well as Djibouti, ranging from communications equipment and uniforms to transportation and support for Ugandan military training of TFG forces.