A Narrow Focus on Counterterrorism Won’t Bring Peace
Since he took office in 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden has wound down the United States’ involvement in some post-9/11 conflicts. But Somalia is a glaring exception. For more than 16 years the U.S. military has helped to wage a war against al Shabab, a Somali extremist insurgency that emerged in 2006. Under Biden’s direction, U.S. forces are still carrying out, on average, a dozen airstrikes every year and spending millions of dollars to train and equip the Somali special forces unit known as the Danab.
In one sense, Somalia has long been a footnote in the United States’ war on terror. The administrations of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump were focused on other regions; as a result, the United States failed to develop a long-term strategy focused on resolving the conflict in Somalia. At the same time, these presidents also sought to respond aggressively to the threat from al Shabab, emphasizing the links between the local militants and al Qaeda, backing Ethiopian and African Union (AU) military interventions, and ramping up airstrikes.
By now, the United States has become content to simply manage the problem through a containment strategy—one some U.S. officials have described as “mowing the lawn,” or periodically shearing al Shabab’s capacities without seriously pushing for lasting peace in the suffering country. Now is the time to change tack. Next month, diplomats representing a so-called quintet of Somalia’s most influential security partners—Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States—will meet with Somali leaders in Ankara. At this meeting, Washington should communicate a plan for peace based on stabilization and reconciliation, not solely on counterterrorism measures.
This might sound like an expansion of the U.S. mission—an approach that is at odds with the goals of a president generally committed to winding down troubled military engagements overseas. But the truth is that al Shabab is unlikely to be defeated purely through military means. If the United States ever wants to withdraw its forces from Somalia for good, it must go beyond military containment and develop a Somalia strategy that prioritizes supporting reconciliation and helping Mogadishu stabilize its territorial gains. Washington cannot “mow” the Somali “lawn” indefinitely. It must, instead, support the growth of a peaceful Somalia that can function on its own.
The U.S. government’s involvement in Somalia had a checkered track record even before the rise of al Shabab. After Siad Barre, the brutal military dictator who ruled Somalia for two decades, was overthrown in the early 1990s, the Somali state collapsed, plunging the country into civil war. In 1993, the United States lent its support to a UN effort to distribute humanitarian aid to starving Somalis, but the mission ended with the notorious downing of two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters in Mogadishu and a firefight that killed more U.S. troops than in any battle since the Vietnam War—and well over 100 Somalis.
Throughout the next decade, Islamist militants, some with ties to al Qaeda, took advantage of Somalia’s instability to build strength. That concerned Bush administration officials, but they faced more immediate challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq and were wary of getting involved in Somalia; the memory of the Black Hawk Down debacle still shaped U.S. policy. With the U.S. Departments of State and Defense focused elsewhere, in 2005 CIA officers based in Nairobi began to pay tens of thousands of dollars in cash to predatory Somali warlords to capture al Qaeda members.
This move provoked a prescient dissenting cable from a Kenya-based U.S. foreign service officer predicting that such payoffs would only help fuel the rise of extremism. As the author of the cable foresaw, the strategy backfired, provoking further distrust among Somalis that helped drive them toward Islamist leaders. In response, that foreign service officer was reassigned to Chad.
In 2004, the international community had recognized a transitional government in Somalia, one strongly backed by Ethiopia. But the fledgling government never established its authority, and by 2006, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a coalition of regional sharia courts with an affiliated militia, took control of Mogadishu, leaving the transitional government to flee to Somalia’s northwest. The ICU implemented sharia law and established some sense of stability in parts of Somalia for the first time in more than 15 years.
During Bush’s presidency, the memory of the Black Hawk Down debacle still shaped U.S. policy.
Neighboring Ethiopia, however, considered the ICU an unacceptable regime to have next door. After attempts at negotiations between the transitional government and the ICU failed, Ethiopia sent troops to oust the ICU. Bush, leaning on Ethiopia for direction in Somalia, offered training and intelligence to the Ethiopian military and backed its invasion with U.S. airstrikes. And in early 2007, also with U.S. support, the UN Security Council authorized a multinational AU force to protect the transitional government, facilitate humanitarian operations, and help stabilize Somalia.
Yet Ethiopia’s intervention ended up strengthening Islamist groups. The leadership of the ICU’s moderate civilian wing fled the country. But the ICU’s militia, al Shabab—meaning “the youth” in Arabic, referring to the group’s younger generation—stayed in Somalia, vowing to resist. Forging stronger ties to al Qaeda and appealing to Somalis aggrieved by the Ethiopian military’s abuses, al Shabab managed to take control of much of south-central Somalia.
Bush could have pushed for more dialogue instead of military intervention, emphasizing the need for a Somali-led solution. Instead, his administration remained narrowly focused on al Shabab’s links to al Qaeda and opted to deepen the U.S. military’s involvement in Somalia. In March 2008, the U.S. government designated al Shabab a foreign terrorist organization, which imposed sanctions on al Shabab members and threatened anyone who materially supported the group with criminal prosecution.
That summer, the United States carried out another airstrike on an al Shabab commander who was considered a member of al Qaeda. In the wake of the strike, U.S. officials debated whether such actions would hurt or embolden al Shabab. This debate was never resolved, setting the tone for a similar ambivalence within the Obama administration.
TRIALS AND TERROR
Initially, Obama sought to shift U.S. policy, promoting both military support for a new transitional government—now led by the ICU’s former leader—and development aid. Cautious not to overcommit, administration officials were at pains not to deem this a state-building project. U.S. diplomats had to work remotely from Nairobi, since there was no U.S. embassy in Mogadishu.
Al Shabab’s war continued to expand. In 2010, it carried out its first international attack in Uganda, a member of the AU’s peacekeeping mission, killing 74 people and wounding dozens more. In response to al Shabab’s growing threat, in 2011, the Obama administration increased its use of airstrikes; the AU peacekeepers cleared Mogadishu of insurgents and Kenyan forces ousted them from the southern Somali city of Kismayo. In 2012, these defeats led al Shabab to formally declare its allegiance to al Qaeda in search of support and legitimacy.
This development, however, may not have been as threatening as it seemed. Within both al Shabab and al Qaeda, there was no clear consensus on the nature of the two groups’ relationship. But the declaration by al Shabab’s leader buoyed U.S. officials who wanted the United States to take a more uncompromising line in Somalia, and the Obama administration began to drift toward a more militaristic approach. With U.S. support, the UN Security Council expanded the AU peacekeepers’ mandate. Hoping that a concentrated effort to build a special forces unit within the Somali army would help the fight against al Shabab, the Department of State contractor Bancroft and the U.S. military began training such a unit—the Danab—to clear territory of militants.
During Obama’s second term, U.S. airstrikes in Somalia increased dramatically, rising from 14 in the first term to 34 in the second. Most consequentially, in 2016, the Obama administration determined that al Shabab was an associated force of al Qaeda. This provided domestic legal justification for lethal attacks on any al Shabab member—and teed up yet more substantial U.S. military action in Somalia.
SLEEPWALKING INTO WAR
Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, largely delegated strike approval to the U.S. military. With fewer constraints, the U.S. military’s Africa Command vigorously pursued al Shabab. From 2017 to 2020, more airstrikes—219 total—were carried out in Somalia than during the combined 16 years of Bush’s and Obama’s administrations.
Although these operations dealt a blow to the group, the insurgency learned to adapt. It carried out dozens of attacks, bombing the entrance to Somalia’s biggest military airfield—which housed U.S. forces—in 2019 and launching a deadly assault on U.S. and Kenyan troops in Kenya in January 2020. Meanwhile, the AU began to draw down its peacekeeping forces after facing years of frustration from its biggest donor, the European Union, over its lack of progress against al Shabab.
Thanks to the work of U.S. State Department officials, many of whom served in Nairobi, some progress was made on the diplomatic front. The United States established a permanent diplomatic mission in Mogadishu, drew up a roadmap for relieving Somalia’s debt—in 2019, the country owed over $5 billion globally and $1 billion to the United States—and sent Mogadishu billions of dollars of humanitarian aid.
These actions, however, did not help the Somali government make much progress on security or state-building. The Somali president at the time, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as “Farmajo”, dedicated much of his time to consolidating his own power by expanding the central government at the expense of the member states in Somalia’s federal system. In December 2020—in a tersely worded, one-page document—Trump hastily directed U.S. forces to withdraw from Somalia. But the head of U.S. Africa Command, General Stephen Townsend, continued to send forces in and out of the country on a rotational basis, a practice he referred to in public as “commuting to work.”
WINNING THE BATTLE
And thus Biden inherited a sorry history of U.S. policy reversals and overreliance on bludgeoning counterterrorism when it comes to Somalia. Early in his presidency, his National Security Council, led not by East Africa experts but counterterrorism officials, oversaw a review of what to do about U.S. forces transiting in and out of the country. The reviewers offered Biden three options: maintain the status quo, send forces back to Somalia on a persistent basis, or withdraw completely.
Nobody backed the first option out of concern for the safety of U.S. forces. But Townsend supported the second option of reinforcing the U.S. military presence. He emphasized al Shabab’s threat not just to U.S. interests but even to the U.S. homeland.
Most U.S. officials do not believe al Shabab has the capability to directly threaten the United States. And yet no other officials vigorously challenged Townsend’s argument. They mostly saw a redeployment of forces as low cost and low risk, and Somalia policy was nobody’s hill to die on. And so, in May 2022, Biden decided to send several hundred U.S. troops back to Somalia. Months later, U.S. airstrikes helped push al Shabab out of some territory in central Somalia, where local clan militias had also tired of the high taxes al Shabab were imposing during a devastating drought.
But despite these military gains, Biden has far better options than the narrow approach he has chosen. In late summer of 2023, the Somali government restarted an offensive to capture more territory, backed by U.S. airstrikes. It is possible that this offensive will drive al Shabab out of more pockets of land in Somalia. But if the government cannot consolidate these gains, al Shabab will return. In fact, in recent weeks, al Shabab has retaken control of several towns it had lost over the past year.
DON’T LOSE THE WAR
To give Somalia better odds to break this vicious cycle, Washington should adopt a strategy that goes beyond containment. As a first step, the U.S. government should place a higher priority on supporting the Somali government’s stabilization efforts in the territory it has liberated from jihadis. U.S. officials should stress to their Somali counterparts that stabilization is as important as battling al Shabaab. Working through development partners such as the UN and local nongovernmental organizations, the United States should focus on provision of food and water and expand on quick-impact projects that meet local communities’ needs, such as repairing boreholes and facilitating medical services. The U.S. must ensure, however, that this time, funding intended for stabilization does not create additional opportunities for graft.
The U.S. Congress has a key role to play by appropriating more money for stabilization efforts in Somalia. However, given a Congress is so divided that it struggles to pass any legislation at all, increases in funding for Somalia are not likely to come in the foreseeable future. At a minimum, Congress must agree to ensure adequate oversight of U.S. policy to Somalia. This could include requiring the State Department to report annually on the progress of U.S. initiatives in the country and on Somalia’s progress toward making its government more financially transparent and accountable. In the short term, the Senate must act quickly to confirm the U.S. ambassador to Somalia that Biden nominated in March. The United States badly needs an ambassador to put weight behind its policies.
The United States alone cannot bring peace to Somalia, but many parties look to it for leadership.
The United States must also support reconciliation within Somali society. Deep divisions and distrust between officials in Mogadishu and regional leaders, as well as among clans and subclans, threaten to fragment the country. If these divisions are not addressed, al Shabab will use every opportunity to exploit them. U.S. officials should pressure Somali elites to work through their differences and come to comprehensive agreements on resource sharing, which in turn could help lead to fairer election processes—at both high and local levels—and potentially a permanent constitution.
The most difficult step for Washington will be to acknowledge the reality that, eventually, Mogadishu will have to negotiate with al Shabab to bring the war to an end. These negotiations will need to be a Somali-led effort. But Washington must make clear that it will not undermine them and that it will work to convince its allies not to interfere. If Washington does not lift the foreign terrorist organization designation it applied to al Shabab in 2008, it must at least provide assurances that individuals working on peace negotiations with al Shabab will not be prosecuted.
The first meetings of the quintet of influential Somali security partners began in November 2022 in London. At these meetings, however, officials failed to substantively discuss concrete policies to work toward peace. The United States has leverage in this group thanks to its long history in Somalia and the funding it commits there. It must use that leverage to focus the discussion on specific actions.
The United States alone cannot bring peace to Somalia. But it remains influential there, and many parties look to it for leadership. If Washington ever wants to wind down its military engagements in the country, it must design a more comprehensive policy that serves as a platform for peace. Otherwise, Somalia risks becoming yet another cautionary tale of the war on terror, like so many ill-fated campaigns of the post-9/11 era.