American forces have now beefed up their presence in Somalia, where the United States has been involved since 1992, in an attempt finally to gain victory over a Somali force called al-Shabab, “the Youth,” on behalf of a coalition with Somalia and African Union forces.
Among the six wars in the region that the administration of President Barack Obama has kept the United States involved in — Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen — it is perhaps hardest to find a rationale for America’s long and expensive involvement in Somalia.
It is an almost entirely desert country in northeast Africa with a population of 11 million and virtually no wealth. Before its last coherent government collapsed in January 1991, its only exports were bananas and camels, sold to Arab countries for meat and to race. America’s first military involvement there post-Cold War was in 1992 when fighting among its tribal clans was preventing humanitarian assistance to its then-starving population.
Portrayal of the misery on American television prompted outgoing U.S. president George H.W. Bush in late 1992 to dispatch American troops there to try to make possible the delivery of relief supplies. That intervention ended when the famous “Black Hawk Down” episode that killed 18 American servicemen prompted President Bill Clinton to withdraw virtually all American forces from Somalia.
From then until now, America has directly and indirectly, through support of United Nations and African Union forces there, including the Ethiopians, hated by the Somalis, tried to reintroduce organized government to the troubled country.
The Somalis themselves see these efforts as largely money-making propositions. The Americans and other international parties organize conferences in expensive hotels outside the country, the Somalis “deliberate” and come up with some sort of unelected “government,” and the war continues.
Now, the United States is apparently trying again.
It has hundreds of Special Forces and private contractors in Somalia. It has a military base, its only large one in Africa, in neighboring Djibouti, the former French Somaliland, packed with military aircraft, thousands of troops and drones. It has trained and equipped a Somali national army, as it has in Afghanistan and Iraq, and among Syrian rebel groups.
It is now going to go after al-Shabab, which has a loose affiliation with what is left of al-Qaida, and try to eliminate it. In the face of that effort, al-Shabab will undoubtedly simply filter away into Somalia’s ample wastelands, to live and fight another day.
No one in the Obama administration has yet been able to explain cogently to Americans just why the United States is doing this, why the American taxpayer is paying for the now 24-year-long adventure in an empty land.
By the Editorial Board