Opinion: Does Biden want another ‘forever war’ in Somalia?
The Biden administration appears to be leaning back into one of the “forever wars” they wanted to avoid: in Somalia. The United States has been decisively engaged in this country since “Black Hawk Down” in October 1993 — 29 years now. The troop-contributing countries of the Africa Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) have been at it since 2007; Ethiopia has struggled with its neighbor since the late 1940s. While the Biden administration stresses a “policy of disengagement,” it is putting boots back on the ground again — without an end state.
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The justification for the deployment is that al-Shabaab has increased its strength and attacks against the Somalia government since our withdrawal. According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, U.S. forces would not be “directly engaged” in combat operations; instead, their purpose would be to “enable a more effective fight against al-Shabaab, by local forces.” Will this be our response in Afghanistan if al Qaeda and ISIS-K become a threat to the United States again? Kirby said on May 19, “They’re already there, but I mean, you know, growth in their capabilities such that it would threaten our interest.”
Somalia is an entry point into East Africa — one to which Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda can attest. No one denies al-Shabaab poses a serious threat to Somalia and U.S. interests throughout the region. They are a capable, resilient terrorist organization that thrives in much of Somalia’s ungoverned space.
On the surface, going after bad guys is a good thing — but we’ll run out of bullets before they run out of bad guys in Somalia. The definition of insanity, attributed to Albert Einstein, defines the war on terrorism in East Africa as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Something must change, other than the leadership of al-Shabaab. Somalia is a country on paper only; much like Afghanistan, there is a capital city (Mogadishu) and then ungoverned space that is run by clans, tribes, warlords and al-Shabaab. There is no sense of national identity; the lines drawn on maps — a result of the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 — are meaningless. Influence and loyalty are bought, sold or taken.
We can’t want good government more than the Somalis do. Simply going through the motions doesn’t accomplish anything; it just prolongs the end state, and lines the pockets of local leaders. Twenty-plus years of “nation-building” in Afghanistan that dissolved to Taliban rule when U.S. forces withdrew should have taught the Biden administration a lesson. Somalia is a money pit for the United States; the investment we’ve made in equipment, training, and lives has yielded practically no return. Unlike the tenacity and resiliency demonstrated by the citizens defending Ukraine against Russian invaders, there is no national will in Somalia, only Insha’Allah.
I witnessed this firsthand during my tenure as the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa senior intelligence officer. What capability existed, that which we built and trained, quickly deteriorated shortly after our departure. Our AMISOM partners didn’t leave the security of their base camps and often could not defend them — several were overrun and their soldiers slaughtered by al-Shabaab. The few nationalists who do exist in Somalia are swimming upstream against a current of Islamists intent on establishing a caliphate anchored in East Africa.
Our special forces are extremely good at what they do. There is no doubt they can return to Somalia and deliver the results that Biden asks of them, but limited air strikes “meant to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat” only have an effect when the U.S. adviser is standing there beside them. They can’t remove the cancer; they only suppress it until we leave, and the remission will be short-lived. The military element within the Instruments of National Power must be accompanied by one or more of the other elements — and a clearly defined end state.
The Biden administration acknowledges the “persistent” military presence that it can deliver will not be permanent. It will evaporate when we depart again, echoing the aphorism by Heraclitus: “The road up and the road down are the same thing.”
Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. He led the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) Intelligence Directorate in Djibouti from 2015-2016. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.