Sending US troops back to Somalia would be folly

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At the beginning of this year, President Trump ordered roughly 800 US soldiers to withdraw from Somalia as part of a larger effort by his administration to prune back the unchecked growth of US military involvement in unwinnable wars

While the Biden administration embraced Trump’s plans for withdrawal from Afghanistan, the president has said little either way about whether he will reverse his predecessor’s course on Somalia. Reports that the Pentagon is already drawing up plans to send troops back to Somalia indicate that he might do just that.  

US involvement in Somalia has been on a much smaller scale than the US invasion of Afghanistan. However, there are parallels between the two conflicts. Former US policies are partly responsible for the genesis of the Taliban due to Washington’s support for its forerunner, the mujahidin. Likewise, flawed policies in Somalia helped spawn al-Shabaab

In the case of al-Shabaab, it is unlikely the group would exist in its current virulent form if the US had not green-lighted the 2006 Ethiopia led invasion of Somalia. During that war, the relatively moderate Islamic Courts Union (ICU) was overthrown. In its place, al-Shabaab metastasised. 

Avoiding the security vacuum

It is an ability to deliver security and predictability to those under their control that contribute to the durability and success of both organisations. Populations abhor governance vacuums and will acquiesce to even the harshest regimes – at least for a while – if it means that they will have some semblance of security.

Like most effective insurgent groups, al-Shabaab directs most of its violence at those living outside the territory it controls. The areas over which al-Shabaab rules in southern Somalia are secure and comparatively well-governed. Al-Shabaab provides some basic services and checkpoints and “taxes” are regularised.

Al-Shabaab also runs an extensive network of courts that operate across Somalia. Many Somalis – even those opposed to al-Shabaab – will seek out al-Shabaab aligned courts because their rulings are handed down quickly and are enforced. In short, those living under the control of al-Shabaab generally know what to expect from their rulers. This stands in contrast with the unpredictability and rampant corruption within the government of Somalia and those forces it nominally controls.

Like most effective insurgent groups, al-Shabaab directs most of its violence at those living outside the territory it controls. The areas over which al-Shabaab rules in southern Somalia are secure and comparatively well-governed. Al-Shabaab provides some basic services and checkpoints and “taxes” are regularised.

Al-Shabaab also runs an extensive network of courts that operate across Somalia. Many Somalis – even those opposed to al-Shabaab – will seek out al-Shabaab aligned courts because their rulings are handed down quickly and are enforced. In short, those living under the control of al-Shabaab generally know what to expect from their rulers. This stands in contrast with the unpredictability and rampant corruption within the government of Somalia and those forces it nominally controls.

Rather than double down on troop deployments and more drone strikes in Somalia, Washington the US would do more good by doing less”

Just as in Afghanistan, where no expense was spared and tens of thousands of troops were deployed, there is no viable military solution to the conflict in Somalia. The US has neither the interest nor the stomach to commit the thousands of soldiers that would be required to materially defeat al-Shabaab, an organisation that poses no particular threat to the homeland.

The wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam demonstrate that, even with the deployment of tens of thousands of soldiers and a blank check, victory is rare. As Colonel Gian Gentile argues, a “hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency carried out by an occupying power in a foreign land doesn’t work, unless it is a multi-generational effort.” While the military-industrial complex would undoubtedly welcome 40-60 years of involvement in countries like Afghanistan and Somalia, it is doubtful that the American people and those who fight our wars will.

If there is a solution to the insurgency in Somalia, it will come from Somalis themselves. One need only look north to the unrecognised Republic of Somaliland to see that Somalis are more than capable of building durable and democratic state institutions. 

It is notable that Somaliland, unlike Somalia, has received little foreign assistance and, as a consequence, has been forced to follow its own path from conflict to stability.

Rather than double down on troop deployments and more drone strikes in Somalia, Washington the US would do more good by doing less.