Most Americans are at least somewhat familiar with our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, given the never-ending parade of dreary headlines flowing from those conflicts over the last two decades. But very few are well-versed in a similar quagmire in Somalia, which has received far less media coverage—but recently became the longest war in United States’ history.
President Biden recently authorized the military to deploy approximately 500 troops to Somalia even though it was only 18 months ago that 700 troops had been pulled out by former President Trump. While the decision to re-deploy is a folly on a large scale, at the very least, Biden’s authorization has spotlighted America’s forgotten war in the horn of Africa for a moment. It’s an opportunity to revisit the many failures of US intervention in Somalia and call for an end to yet another unwinnable American war.
On that note, here’s how it all began.
In the wake of 9/11, former President George Bush dispatched the CIA and The Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to Somalia to fight Islamic extremists. In what’s sadly standard protocol, the CIA attempted to do so by funding, arming and supporting local warlords so that in return, they’d hunt and kill extremists. (Ironically, the US funded some of the same warlords we fought in 1993 during the disastrous Black Hawk Down scenario.)
Naturally, the US empowering violent warlords only led to greater opposition. The stronger the opposition became, the more the warlords would come to the CIA for increased weapons and funds, claiming there was a growing insurgency of extremists. Realistically, terrorized Somalians were simply finding refuge in whatever group they could.
In reaction to warlord tyranny, in 2005, 13 disparate groups came together to form the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), essentially a rudimentary Somali government. They drove the warlords across the border into Ethiopia. In retaliation, in 2006 the US backed the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.
While Ethiopian forces committed war crimes such as rape and torture on the ground, US special operations forces participated in the air with their AC-130 gunships, bombing innocents. The Islamic Courts Union was overthrown with ease, but a new US enemy took their place–“al-Shabaab,” or the “the youth.” Al-Shabaab was a militia group affiliated with the Islamic Courts Union and perhaps the most radical of the 13 disparate groups. As the Ethiopian insurgency dragged on, this radical militia rose to greater power.
Surprisingly, but also completely unsurprisingly, the US helped the leader of the Islamic Courts Union, Sheikh Sharif, escape from Somalia to Kenya and then onto Yemen in 2007. There, he reorganized his return to power and in 2009 assumed the Presidency of a transitional government in Somalia. The United States overthrew Sheikh Sharif three years earlier only to then completely back his Presidency. Some elements of the ICU merged with the new Somali government and al-Shabaab rejected it, creating a split and changing the entire framework of the war.
Now, as President Barack Obama rolled into office, the fight in Somalia became the US-backed Somali government plus the African Union versus al-Shabaab. This is where it remains today.
Over a decade of increased drone strikes, JSOC surveillance and assault and capture operations, and even the implementation of army ground troops (installed by Trump) has been at best ineffective and at worst completely counterproductive. (You know, kind of like all of America’s ‘wars on terror’.)
Perhaps the most important factor to note is that US intervention not only incentivized al-Shabaab to remain allied against a common enemy, but it was actually the driving factor behind the group’s allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012. For 11 years, the US had fought religious extremists who had never attacked our country or threatened our national security, only to push them into an alliance with a terrorist group who had in fact attacked our country and threatened our national security.
That’s right: Billions of US tax dollars have been spent propping up a corrupt Somali government that furthers clan rivalry under the guise of fighting al-Shabaab and has inspired little support from the Somali people.
Similar to Afghanistan, it’s clear that the only reason this US-installed government is still standing is because of the 20,000 African Union troops stationed in the country. Upon their withdrawal and in the absence of American subsidies, the government will fall to al-Shabaab quite quickly. Despite our efforts, the group only continues to expand its reach, while more foreign intervention fuels their propaganda about “infidel” invaders.
Biden’s decision to re-deploy a token number of troops, no matter how well trained, is yet another way to put American lives at stake and stall the inevitable fact that our ongoing military intervention in Somalia is simply an unwinnable war.
Truthfully, what’s occurring in Somalia is a civil war, and should be treated as such. The solution for Somalia can only be found by Somalians themselves.
We only need to look north at the unrecognized “Republic of Somaliland,” which is located in northern Somalia and has an independent government with democratic elections. Just miles from war-torn southern Somalia, here it’s easy to see that Somalians are more than capable of building durable democratic institutions in the absence of foreign intervention.
The best path forward isn’t to continue an unconstitutional war that puts our troops in greater jeopardy for a quagmire parallel to Afghanistan, but rather to allow the situation to play out domestically and offer Somalians a chance at self-determination.