Biden's drone war: The implications of prolonged US intervention in Somalia

A policeman marches holding a Somali flag during a parade in Mogadishu, 11 December 2007. [Getty]
6 min read
16 August, 2021

While it initially appeared that US President Joe Biden had intended to continue scaling back Washington’s decades-long military involvement in Somalia, his administration has conducted multiple airstrikes on the Somalia-based Al-Shabab group since 21 July.

Although Al-Shabab is weaker than it once was, the Somali army has continued operations against the Al-Qaeda offshoot this year, as it still poses a threat to the country’s stability despite years of counterterrorism campaigns. This follows former US president Donald Trump’s decision to fully withdraw US troops from Somalia in January.

Alongside the airstrikes, the Biden administration announced it would deploy special operation forces to Kenya, which would join forces with the country’s own forces in its battle with the Al-Qaeda affiliate.

"While Biden initially intended to continue scaling back Washington's decades-long military involvement in Somalia, his administration has conducted multiple airstrikes on Al-Shabab since July"

Since 1992, the US has largely been involved in both a ground and air war in the country, after the country descended into civil war following the collapse of Siad Barre’s regime in 1991. Yet in the long-term, this has not delivered the necessary improvements to Somalia’s stability.

After all, Al-Shabab was able to emerge in 2006 and conduct major insurgencies within Somalia and surrounding countries. Washington designated the faction as a terrorist organisation in 2008 and has sought to degrade the group with an air campaign.

There have been some successes in dislodging Al-Shabab’s control. A US and African Union-backed intervention by Ethiopia in 2006, at the Somali government’s request, helped push the faction away from the Somali capital Mogadishu.

However, it has been argued that such interventions had further radicalised Al-Shabab and made it adopt a more hard-line position against Ethiopia and the US. The faction has still been able to carry out horrific terrorist attacks against Somali civilian areas in recent years.

Somalia soldiers - AFP
Somali soldiers on patrol at Sanguuni military base, where an American special operations soldier was killed by a mortar attack on 8 June 2018. [Getty]

Amid Biden’s U-turn on Somalia, there have been concerns over the legality of continued US intervention. Although Washington invoked the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against the terrorist groups that attacked the United States on 9/11, some leading Democrats claimed that recent airstrikes were “unconstitutional.”

Figures like Senator Ben Cardin, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued that the Biden administration’s move was inconsistent with the sentiment within the US congress.

“I think President [Joe] Biden should submit a new authorization for the use of military force and should recognize that the 2001 AUMF should be terminated,” Cardin added.

After all, Washington’s approach to Somalia, though operating on a counter-terrorism premise, has caused local damage, including civilian deaths. Amnesty International has previously said that US airstrikes could therefore be a breach of international humanitarian law.

"Although the US has been involved in the country militarily, little effort has been made to ensure that a strong police force and national army is established"

Speaking of the past impact of US airstrikes on Al-Shabab, Dr Mohammad Ibrahim Shire, lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, told The New Arab that there is evidence that military efforts had initially diminished the group’s freedom of movement and territorial control. Indeed, this has enabled the Somali government to expand its influence in the country, he added.

“However, Al-Shabab is quite a resilient movement that has succeeded at times in finding new modes of operation or shifting to some of their other violent tactics, such as IED and grenade attacks. So, while airstrikes have limited the militant group's movement, it hasn't fully degraded its operational capacity,” said Dr Shire.

Learning lessons from Afghanistan

The alarming events in Afghanistan, with the Taliban sweeping across the country in August and capturing Kabul, provide a stark reminder of the consequences of Washington failing to establish a lasting security apparatus while largely focusing on counterterrorism.  

There were concerns over the US withdrawal from Somalia in January, given the long history of US interventions within the country. Although some Western diplomats downplayed the implications of the US withdrawal, some Somali civilians were fearful of the security vacuum that it would leave.

After all, Somalia has been picking up the pieces of a former failed state, and although the US has been involved in the country militarily, there have been little efforts to ensure that a strong police force and national army is established.

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“One of the glaring mistakes that the US made in Afghanistan was neglecting the Afghan national police force -- an important national institution,” said Shire.

With regards to Somalia, Shire added, “Washington could provide important support to strengthening the operational role of domestic law enforcement agencies instead of training counterinsurgent forces. A capable police force could do wonders in handling Al-Shabab threats without fielding the army”.

Indeed, Washington became entrenched in Somalia through its counterterrorism operations, which created a dependency on the US to remain in Somalia, like Afghanistan. To avert continued security limitations within Somalia, some experts say it would be helpful to ensure there are more lasting preparations made for the country to maintain its own security.

Geopolitical implications

Washington’s desire to retain military influence could also have regional implications. For instance, it may be unwilling to address Ethiopia’s war in the Tigray province, despite its condemnations of Addis Ababa’s actions in that region.

After all, Addis Ababa has served as a key security ally for Washington, and this indicates it will be keen to maintain this partnership for its operations against Al-Shabab.

Somalia bombing
Somali soldiers patrol at the scene of the explosion of a truck bomb in the centre of Mogadishu on 15 October 2017 which killed over 500 people. [Getty]

Washington’s renewed involvement in Somalia also comes amid growing regional and international tensions with China, with Washington still hoping to counteract Beijing’s growing clout in Africa. Beijing meanwhile may perceive Washington’s past drawdown as an opportunity to expand its own influence in the Horn of Africa.

China has flexed its financial muscles to secure a greater economic footprint in the continent. In terms of loans, Chinese financiers committed $153 billion to African public sector borrowers between 2000 and 2019.

And while Washington was traditionally the biggest trading partner with African countries, China has overwhelmingly filled this space in the 21st century, with a rapid overtaking of the US within the last decade. 

Even in the Horn of Africa, China has become a more dominant actor. It has boosted its commercial foothold in the port of Djibouti and has even become a more key actor in Somalia. It has invested in Somalia’s infrastructure, healthcare, education, sports, agriculture, and water supply.

"The alarming events in Afghanistan provide a stark reminder of the consequences of Washington failing to establish a lasting security apparatus while largely focusing on counterterrorism"

Washington has therefore labelled China’s growing clout in Africa as a threat. In April, the top US general for Africa Stephen Townsend claimed that China could use its economic clout to bolster its military capabilities, particularly in the Horn of Africa.

"They're looking for a place where they can rearm and repair warships. That becomes militarily useful in conflict," said Townsend, who heads US Africa Command. "They're a long way toward establishing that in Djibouti. Now they're casting their gaze to the Atlantic coast and wanting to get such a base there."

But rather than continued military interventions, it is important for Washington to provide support to Somalia’s national security forces, as only Somalia itself can ultimately defeat Al-Shabab.

Such proactive investments could also serve as a counterbalance to China’s own influence and be an effective means to boost Somalia’s stability.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey