Toward a Coherent U.S. Policy in Somalia

We need to be honest about the limits of U.S. foreign policy


Somali government soldiers patrol an empty street near the main Bakara market in the capital Mogadishu / Reuters

On Thursday, a U.S. drone fired on two figures believed to be associated with Al-Shabab, an Islamist group in Somalia believed to have ties to al Qaeda. They were, according to U.S. officials, wounded. Later news indicates that U.S. special operations forces landed inside Somalia to retrieve the two injured men, taking them away for questioning.

The incident is interesting, not for what it reveals about the capability of the U.S. counterterrorism apparatus (which is, to be certain, quite substantial), but rather about the limits of U.S. policymaking in the region.

Ever since the defeat of the Islamic Courts Union, an Islamist movement which had established control over Mogadishu in December 2006, the U.S. government hasn't seemed able to make up its mind about what to do in Somalia. There's been the constant threat of violent counterterrorism operations like this latest drone strike and retrieval. There has been a consistent funding and support of Ethiopia, America's most eager proxy in the Horn of Africa. But a broad sense of strategy -- of a solid goal the U.S. is working to achieve and the means by which it will be achieved -- is sorely missing.

In a sense, this is just another case of the listlessness of U.S. foreign policy write large. While Barack Obama didn't begin this trend he's certainly continued it, relying more on moral preferences and appeals to an undefined pragmatism than any sort of established strategic framework that orders and prioritizes U.S. interests, values, and capabilities. We can see this same pattern at work in Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen: vague or unstated preferred outcomes, and lots of kinetic things in the meantime that may or may not actually affect that preferred outcome. While this way of working is sort of the norm in the Post Cold War universe, it's not terribly strategic. And I think what we've seen in Afghanistan is that this sort of thinking can lead to a more-or-less permanent entrenchment of conflict that is very bad for us in the long term.

In rural Somalia, in small towns like Gedo in the southwestern region, there are so few schools that teenagers join militias just to receive payment and have something to do. People there join militias, in part, to feel part of a collective identity, to generate income, and to escape otherwise depressing living conditions. Inevitably, in the course of working through and with these militia groups, some of these young people will come into contact with Al-Shabab. Some might even join.

Militancy in Somalia, in other words, is not as simple as "counterterrorism" would lead one to think. Yet counterterrorism is the sole framework through which the U.S. views its interests and policies in the country. To revisit this blog's main theme. there is a very poor understanding of Somalia's politics, which almost by design results in poorly crafted policy. It's why libertarians continue to insist Somalia is some sort of anarchic paradise, rather than  the chaotic, violent hellhole it is: they just don't know how or why the country functions the way it does.

Floating drones overhead and picking off individual bad guys will have some effect on al-Shabab. It might make the group more cautious and restrained, or it might make the group angrier, more radicalized, and more prone to launching deadly attacks like last summer's deadly bombings in Kampala, Uganda. We just don't know.

What we do know, based on past experience both within Somalia and with U.S. foreign policy in a general sense, is that without a strategic framework in place to help guide, inspire, and constrain policy, we really shouldn't expect anything different from the last 20 years of anarchic violence there. Because we won't be working toward anything else.