The US’s forever war against Somalia

US troops on a night time operation in Somalia

By Zuri Omar

While commemorating the 11th September attack, the US conducted their own deadliest drone strike in Somalia since Joe Biden took office. This strike took place in the town of Mubarak in the Lower Shabelle province and has claimed the lives of more than 6 civilians.

This comes a few short months after President Biden signed an order to redeploy hundreds of troops in Somalia, reversing former president Trump’s 2020 decision. Biden claims redeploying troops is necessary to support the new president, Hassan Sheikh, in facing down the rising threat from Al-Shabab.

However, the US has been involved in Somalia several times since the 1990s, their justification changing with the political climate. First providing support for the dictator Siad Barre as part of American Cold-War policy, then the Operation Restore Hope of 1992, under the pretext of providing relief from the famine induced by the civil war that ousted Barre, then stopping “pirates”, and, for the last twenty years, it has allegedly been about countering terror.

However, a 1994 Fort Leavenworth paper reveals a less altruistic agenda from the onset: “Throughout our involvement with Somalia, our overriding strategic objective was simply to acquire and maintain the capability to respond to any military contingency that could threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East, Northeast Africa and the Red Sea area.”

As a direct result of US involvement over the past three decades, an estimated 250,000 Somalis have died and 3 million have been displaced as refugees.

Despite the assumption that Africa represents a newer front on the war on terror, the US been involved in military action in several African countries before September 11th, 2001. In 1998 Al Qaeda attacked the US embassy in Nairobi and Dar-us-Salam. In response, the FBI dispatched the largest number of agents outside of US territory for the first time in its history and then collaborated closely with the governments of Kenya and Tanzania to seek out the suspects.

That same month of August, President Clinton claimed that Sudan was manufacturing nuclear weapons in an attempt to link them to the attacks. Clinton then bombed Sudan’s largest pharmaceutical factory that produced anti-malarial medications. The effects of that bombing are still being felt today in Sudan.

Of course, the events of 9/11 have taken US military interventions to never before seen heights. As the US was directly involved in Somalia in the 90s and exited on very embarrassing terms (as shown in the film ‘Black Hawk Down’), they were determined to avoid putting US troops on the frontlines again. Instead, they formed partnerships with African countries and then invoked the slogan of ‘African Solutions to African problems’ to justify putting African troops’ lives on the line.

Ethiopia was the first country to volunteer to intervene which it did with US backing in December 2006. This invasion led to the rise of the more militant dimensions of the leadership in Somalia which then became Al-Shabab.

The decision to back this invasion was never discussed in Congress, nor were there any debates at the UN security council. Instead, the UN approved the creation of a peacekeeping mission effectively legitimatising the presence of foreign troops on Somali soil.

Shortly after the Ethiopian invasion in 2006, the US established the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) with the unstated set of objectives being to ensure continued US access to resources, namely oil and being able to compete with emerging powers on the continent, such as China, Russia, the Gulf states, Turkey, and India.

Once the peacekeeping mission was authorised by the UN, a further 4 African countries sent in their troops into Somalia: Uganda, Djibouti, Burundi, and later Kenya.

Gradually this small operation ballooned into a force that surpasses 20,000 troops. The primary motivation for the invading African countries is financial. To compete in today’s highly militarised global economy, a growing number of African states have realised that the war on terror pays big money, and Somalia is a never-ending cash cow. African troops there are eligible for salaries up to 10 times what they would earn back home and the governments themselves receive increased funding and military assistance in the name of peace and security.

Right from his campaigning days, Trump promised that as president he would end overt US military interventionism stating it is not America’s responsibility to solve the problems of these countries. He would claim that he fulfilled that promise by removing the US troops from Somalia in the final days of his presidency. This was merely symbolic, however, as the US troops were not removed from the continent but relocated to neighbouring Kenya and Djibouti, ready to redeploy to Somalia as necessary. More importantly, the 20,000-plus AFRICOM troops continued to remain on the ground under US military direction.

In placing so much emphasis on a military approach to dynamics in Africa, successive US administrations have failed to keep up with other rising powers on the continent– especially China – who have been investing in infrastructure and energy projects for decades now. In many ways, the US has become irrelevant to many countries except for on this single issue of security.

In January 2021 the Foreign Policy Research Institute published a piece by former American Ambassador to Somalia Stephen M. Schwartz criticising Trump’s withdrawal of troops in Somalia as it could “open the door” to a “greater role for the People’s Republic of China”.

More recently, in a March 18, 2022, article, former Pentagon official Michael Rubin criticized Biden’s “neglect” of Africa in general arguing that it was about time Washington backed “democratic, pro-Taiwan Somaliland” against “a Chinese-backed regime” (Somalia).

The Republic of Somaliland is a de facto state internationally considered to be part of Somalia, which lies on the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, and is bordered by Djibouti, where China has its only overseas military base, genuinely aimed at combating pirates. Somaliland has long been seeking international recognition and the US have dangled this possibility to push Somaliland into being an explicitly anti-China African country.

In any case, US involvement in Somalia and in the larger Horn of Africa region is about more than counter-terrorism operations. It is also about curtailing China’s growing influence.

The effect this ‘forever war’ in Somalia is having is in fact the opposite of the stated objective: the US is creating incentives for young people to join Al Shabaab by constantly targeting them. And in the invading African countries, the funds from these peace and security missions as well as the political support from the US has allowed for more repressive governments.

For example, Kenya has created new policing bodies which are also US trained and funded to go after these ‘terrorists’. The effect has been an unprecedented rise in extra judicial killings and disappearances primarily of the Muslim population of Kenya.

Ironically, among the groups of Muslim people in coastal Kenya and Nairobi, there’s actually discussion of fleeing to Somalia to escape police violence in Kenya. The US previously claimed its presence was necessary ‘to make Somalia more like Kenya’. In fact, its policy has the opposite effect, making Kenya more like Somalia.

So, after decades, the US is no closer to winning the supposed war on terror in Africa. Nor does it appear to be able to keep up with the growing power and influence of countries like China on the continent. The US has not had an Africa strategy beyond militarism for the past 15 years. Biden taking the domestically unpopular route of redeploying troops on Somali soil indicates another scrambling US administration bereft of solutions that do not involve bombs.