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Biden Escalates in Somalia
It is absurd to think that Al Shabaab poses any threat to the United States, so it is hard to see how any genuine U.S. security interests are being served by expanding our role in the war.
Biden is sending more troops back into one of the endless wars:
President Biden has signed an order authorizing the military to once again deploy hundreds of Special Operations forces inside Somalia — largely reversing the decision by President Donald J. Trump to withdraw nearly all 700 ground troops who had been stationed there, according to four officials familiar with the matter.
In addition, Mr. Biden has approved a Pentagon request for standing authority to target about a dozen suspected leaders of Al Shabab, the Somali terrorist group that is affiliated with Al Qaeda, three of the officials said. Since Mr. Biden took office, airstrikes have largely been limited to those meant to defend partner forces facing an immediate threat.
The earlier withdrawal from Somalia did not mean that the U.S. was no longer involved in the conflict, but pulling troops out of there was one of the few things that Trump got right. Reversing that withdrawal is a mistake, and launching more strikes in Somalia practically guarantees that more Somali civilians will be killed by U.S. attacks. U.S. military involvement in Somalia is relatively limited, but it is still unnecessary and ill-advised. Limited U.S. involvement is how it has been possible for the last three presidents and now Biden to wage a war there that most Americans know nothing about. That has happened because there has been scant oversight and no pressure on any administration to justify the continuation of the war.
The legal authority for U.S. involvement in Somalia’s conflict is as shaky as it gets. Because Al Shabaab is considered an “associate force” of Al Qaeda, the government claims that the 2001 AUMF applies to a group that didn’t exist when the AUMF was written. This is a prime example of why the 2001 AUMF needs to be repealed: it gives any president a free hand to wage war virtually anywhere against any group provided that there is some notional link with Al Qaeda. It is absurd to think that Al Shabaab poses any threat to the United States, so it is hard to see how any genuine U.S. security interests are being served by expanding our role in the war.
There was an opportunity here for Biden to change the policy he inherited in a way that wouldn’t repeat the mistakes that the U.S. has been making in Somalia for decades, but instead he has decided on going back to a militarized approach that was bringing Somalia neither peace nor security. As Elizabeth Shackelford explained shortly after the 2020 election, U.S. intervention in Somalia was not succeeding in defeating Al Shabaab:
The security situation has remained a violent stalemate. Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi recently declared that — with US assistance — Somalia is “on the brink of defeating” al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-affiliated group we are fighting there. The consistency of al-Shabaab’s attacks and civilian casualties for several years now suggests otherwise. US military leaders have conceded that military defeat of al-Shabaab is not possible and that the conflict will only be won by addressing the underlying causes of extremism in that country with better governance. In the absence of any signs that governance will improve on its current course, maintaining the same military-led strategy is counterproductive.
The U.S. isn’t fighting in Somalia to defend itself, and to the extent that Al Shabaab poses a threat to Americans in the region “it is our ongoing military presence in Somalia that makes Americans and American interests there a target of al-Shabaab.” Military intervention in Somalia is a failed policy by any reasonable measure, but inertia, lack of imagination, and presumably a desire to look “tough” on terrorism have combined to keep it going long after it should have ended. There are many other Trump-era decisions that Biden should be reversing, but this is the one that he is choosing to undo.
According to the report, the number of troops being sent to Somalia “would be capped at around 450.” This is not a huge deployment, but it is a mistake to send them all the same. It is taking U.S. policy in Somalia in the wrong direction, it is not going to improve conditions in Somalia enough to justify our deepening involvement, and it has nothing to do with the security of the United States. The administration’s claim that Al Shabaab poses a “more significant threat” than the Taliban and therefore more direct intervention in Somalia is warranted doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Insofar as any members of Al Shabaab might want to carry out attacks against the U.S., that is almost certainly the result of U.S. intervention in their country. Regardless, they lack the means to carry out such attacks. Prolonging and deepening military intervention in Somalia doesn’t make a single American safer, and it arguably increases the dangers to Americans that are in the region.
No doubt the “commuting” approach to war in Somalia suffers from its own drawbacks and dangers, but that is a reason to question why the U.S. is involved in fighting this war at all. It is not a reason to revert back to an approach that has already failed. It is telling, but not surprising, that no skeptics or critics of U.S. intervention in Somalia were quoted in the report, because if they had been it would have become clear to readers that the president’s decision makes no sense.