Persistent Presence

On 16 May, just months after the United States precipitously withdrew from Afghanistan, President Biden announced that US ground troops would return to Somalia and establish a ‘persistent presence’ – reversing the Trump-era withdrawal. His top general for Africa, Stephen Townsend, attested that since the US departure in January 2021, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in the country had grown ‘bigger, stronger, and bolder’. After a decade and a half of US and African Union training, the Somali national army was still unable to defend its territory. In response, Biden’s team have defaulted to the classic US policy of endless war. Some 500 US troops will return to train and assist Somali forces in counterterrorism operations, with the aim of killing a dozen extremist leaders deemed a direct threat to the United States, its interests and its allies.  

US military intervention in Africa has consistently bolstered repressive regimes, enflamed local conflicts and undermined prospects for regional peace. Somalia is a prime example. During the Cold War, the United States helped to build the Somali army, despite the government’s brutal treatment of dissenters. President Siad Barre was seen as a useful ally against the Marxist government of Ethiopia, which Somalia challenged for regional dominance. By the early 1990s, however, the despot was no longer needed as a local policeman. Washington suspended military and economic aid, permitting warlords and their militias to overthrow his regime. Siad Barre fled to Nigeria and Somalia’s central government collapsed. State institutions and public services crumbled, the formal economy ceased to function, and southern Somalia fractured into fiefdoms ruled by rival warlords who clashed with a resurgent Islamist movement. War-induced famine, compounded by drought, threatened much of the population.

Concerned about regional instability on the strategic Gulf of Aden – through which Middle Eastern oil and natural gas reached the West – the US, backed by the United Nations, launched an intervention in 1992, with the Security Council authorizing the establishment of a multinational military task force under US leadership to ensure the delivery of humanitarian relief. The following year, another UN mission permitted US-led forces to disarm and arrest Somali warlords and militia members. The US began to take sides in what had become a bloody civil war – favouring some warlords over others. Civilians were predictably caught in the crossfire. Many were killed in US airstrikes, eliciting a furious backlash from the population. When two Black Hawk helicopters – deployed as part of a US Special Operations Forces mission – were shot down by Somali militias in October 1993, angry crowds attacked the surviving soldiers and their rescuers. Eighteen US troops and hundreds of Somali men, women and children were killed in the ensuing violence.

Having stirred up a hornets’ nest, the United States hastily withdrew from Somalia. Yet the emergence of al-Qaeda elsewhere in East Africa sparked new US concerns. The bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, followed by the 9/11 attacks in 2001, led to increased US collaboration with Ethiopia, Somalia’s regional nemesis. At the same time, Somali Islamist groups gained widespread support by providing essential social services, including schools, medical care and courts that brought some semblance of order to the war zone. Ignoring the reasons for Islamism’s popular appeal, Washington embarked on a violent and counterproductive campaign to stamp it out. The US banded together with Somali warlords and the Ethiopian government, helping to impose a corrupt government on the country in 2004. In 2006, Washington backed a subsequent warlord coalition to counter the Islamist threat, and supported an Ethiopian invasion and occupation that lasted until 2009. This precipitated a domestic insurgency led by al-Shabaab, originally a youth militia organized to defend the Islamic courts, which quickly transformed into a violent jihadist organization that gained the support of al-Qaeda.

By 2007, al-Shabaab had taken control of large swathes of central and southern Somalia – prompting the UN, African Union and neighbouring countries to intervene. The US worked in the shadows, launching a low-intensity war against al-Shabaab operatives, deploying both private contractors and Special Operations Forces to train and accompany Somali and African Union troops in combat operations. US drones and airstrikes killed key al-Shabaab leaders (to no avail, as they were rapidly replaced by others). As a result, al-Shabaab increasingly focused its attention on the West – targeting aid workers, journalists and Somalis who worked with them.

A decade and a half later, al-Shabaab maintains its powerful foothold in the absence of any functioning state apparatus. Although a new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was elected in May 2022 after a protracted political crisis, the central government still cannot provide basic services in the territories it holds. There is no coherent national army, and the security forces, like the civilian government, are riven by clan-based factions who have used their US training to fight each other instead of al-Shabaab. The government caters to corrupt elites, ignoring the grievances that ignited the insurgency, while the US continues to wage its shadow war. The Obama administration dramatically escalated the use of drones and airstrikes to kill al-Shabaab insurgents, killing hundreds of innocent civilians in the process. In 2013, restrictions were introduced to diminish civilian casualties; yet their impact was minimized by a get-out clause for cases of ‘self-defense’. Upon taking office, the Trump administration reinstated more lenient policies on civilian deaths, intensifying its attacks before withdrawing most US forces in order to deploy them elsewhere. Now, Biden’s recent reversal has brought the policy full circle.

Various lessons can be learned from the US’s ill-fated military adventure in Somalia. One is that it internationalized what had been a local conflict, strengthening violent extremist factions and precipitating al-Qaeda involvement. Far from containing the bloodshed, external intervention increased it – expanding the war such that, by 2016, it included new players associated with the Islamic State. Likewise, peace initiatives brokered by outside actors have repeatedly foundered. Large segments of Somali civil society were not invited to the bargaining table, grassroots peace-building and nation-building efforts were ignored, and the interests of foreign governments and Somali elites prevailed over those of ordinary citizens. Consequently, no negotiated settlement has been able to garner popular support.

Advisors in consecutive Trump and Biden administrations have disagreed on how to manage the Somali debacle. The former concluded that US troops should leave, the latter that they must stay. Yet both Democrats and Republicans have consistently posed the wrong question. The issue is not how many troops, planes or drones the US should supply; rather, it is how to resolve the underlying political and economic grievances that generate instability. Accepting this fact would require a major shift in global outlook. Rather than understanding ‘national security’ as the imperative to protect US hegemony against perceived threats, it would demand that policymakers embrace a more exacting concept of ‘global human security’ – one that focuses on people rather than territory, and includes access to food, water, healthcare, education, employment and physical security, as well as respect for civil liberties and the environment. This multidimensional approach would recognize that the security of a state is premised on the protection of such needs, both inside and outside its borders. The Somali government’s failure to meet them allows movements like al-Shabaab to flourish. Without addressing these shortfalls, no amount of targeted killing or aerial bombardment will weaken the influence of these groups.

A more effective foreign policy would also acknowledge that grassroots organizations – agricultural cooperatives, trade unions, women’s and youth groups – are best placed to understand Somalia’s material problems and their solutions. If outside powers have any role in ending the conflict, it is to support local peace initiatives that include all affected parties: bringing such civil society groups into dialogue with other key actors, including Islamist and jihadist organizations. Yet this remains a distant prospect. Instead, Biden’s recent announcement has simply reaffirmed the standard playbook: propping up a repressive government, launching endless military strikes that kill civilians and engaging on an ad-hoc basis with enterprising warlords. The inevitable failure of this strategy will once again demonstrate that there are no easy fixes or short-term solutions to Somalia’s secular crises. Only a long-term process of structural reform can bring them to an end.

Read on: Alex de Waal, ‘US War Crimes in Somalia’, NLR I/230.