The U.S. war in Somalia rarely receives much media coverage, so it was notable that The Washington Post published a long article last week detailing the current American military role in the conflict against the Al Shabaab militia.
The article emphasized the pitfalls of the previous 2020 withdrawal of troops from the country and the greater costs and inefficiencies of using “commuting” troops to support the Somali government from nearby bases in Kenya and Djibouti. It tells the story of how U.S. forces are “scrambling” to recover from the setbacks caused by the withdrawal under Trump without putting the withdrawal in the context of a failed military campaign that had already stretched on for more than a decade.
The wisdom and necessity of the mission in Somalia are never questioned even in passing, and the entire report reads like an exercise in putting the most positive spin on the Biden administration’s decision to send several hundred troops back into Somalia.
What the article never attempts to do is to offer any compelling reasons why U.S. forces should still be involved in a Somali war in 2022 when there is no discernible connection between this conflict and the security of the United States. Ongoing American involvement in Somalia’s war is something that seems to be taken for granted, and the only questions that the article tries to answer are how best to fight the war and how effective local Somali government forces have become.
Bottom line: the Washington Post fails to hold our government accountable for a war it’s been waging unsuccessfully for 15 years. This kind of slack journalism has allowed wars like this one to drag on without end.
Another important omission from the article is any discussion of the legal authority for U.S. military operations in Somalia. Since the Obama administration named Al Shabaab an “associated force” of Al Qaeda, the U.S. government has worked on the assumption that the 2001 AUMF covers this group. This is an exceptionally weak foundation for a legal justification for using force in Somalia more than twenty years after the original resolution was passed.
Not only does Al Shabaab have nothing to do with the people responsible for planning and carrying out the 9/11 attacks, but the group itself only came into existence years later. Furthermore, it has demonstrated no ability to conduct attacks outside East Africa. The idea that the United States is in any sense defending itself by waging war on Somali militiamen strains credulity past the breaking point. Among other things, the war in Somalia is a cautionary tale of how the 2001 AUMF has become an all-purpose license for war whenever the executive chooses to use it.
Both parties share in the failures of U.S. policy in Somalia. U.S. involvement in the war there stretches back to the Bush administration, and it has deepened over time as the “war on terror” has become an entrenched and routine part of our foreign policy. Trump inherited and escalated the war in Somalia for almost his entire presidency, and it was only at the very end that he ordered approximately eight hundred troops to leave the country. Of course, U.S. involvement in the war did not really end, and the troops simply relocated to bases in neighboring countries.
Even when Trump succeeded in ordering a withdrawal, he was unable to extricate the U.S. from the conflict in question. Instead of admitting that the intervention had been unsuccessful, the U.S. kept it going by shuttling its forces into the country on a rotating basis. This is the arrangement that the Biden administration ended when the president ordered 450 troops to go back to Somalia on a more permanent basis earlier this year. In one of his only reversals of a Trump policy, Biden opted for the older approach that had already been found wanting.
As Oona Hathaway and Luke Hartig explained earlier this year, the decision to withdraw the troops based in Somalia followed a significant escalation by U.S. forces during the Trump years. The withdrawal was a belated acknowledgment that the intensified campaign against Al Shabaab had not yielded the desired results: “After its stepped up military campaign failed to achieve durable gains and following a last ditch effort to negotiate with al-Shabaab, the Trump administration decided to cuts its losses and withdraw U.S. forces. The Biden administration has decided to re-engage, though currently at a level that leaves the country in a long-term stalemate. Battlefield losses could still degrade al-Shabaab, especially its external operations capabilities, but the larger conflict is likely to remain static.”
During the Trump years, U.S. forces significantly increased the use of airstrikes and drone strikes against supposed Al Shabaab targets. As a recent report from the Dutch peace organization Pax shows, this intensified aerial campaign inflicted serious harm on civilians that were either caught in the crossfire or who were themselves mistakenly targeted. This not only did lasting damage to the communities affected by these strikes, but it also served to benefit Al Shabaab by aiding in the group’s recruiting. This part of the U.S. war in Somalia is barely mentioned in the Post article, and the civilian casualties that it caused are nowhere to be found.
U.S. military involvement in Somalia is relatively small, and that is why it has been able to fly under the radar without much public or Congressional scrutiny for so many years. It is incumbent on journalists and analysts to do more than just ask whether one kind of military footprint is more efficient than another.
On the rare occasions when the war in Somalia does receive coverage, we need reporters to ask why the U.S. is persisting with a policy of militarized counterterrorism when it has clearly failed to reduce, much less eliminate, the threat that Al Shabaab poses to Somalia. When it comes to providing stability to Somalia, Hathaway and Hartig note that “the militarized approach that has long dominated U.S. policy toward Somalia appears unlikely to produce” it, and they add that “there’s a strong case that the opposite would prove true.”
Writing for the Quincy Institute in 2020, Elizabeth Shackelford asked the pertinent questions about this policy: “Why is the U.S. military fighting a war there? What U.S. national interest is the war serving? And are America’s actions in Somalia and the region furthering that national interest?” These are the questions that we need our major papers to be asking the administration, which is recommitted to fighting a war that most Americans know little or nothing about. The truth is that there is no U.S. national interest served by fighting in this war, and the U.S. keeps fighting it mostly out of habit and inertia.
If the case for U.S. military involvement in Somalia were sound, Congress should be able to debate and vote on it on its own merits. Failing that, the U.S. should fully withdraw from this war once and for all.