Somalia is, for most Americans, known only as the location of the disastrous 1993 Battle of Mogadishu depicted in 2002’s Black Hawk Down. But the east African country has also become the site of Washington’s latest escalation of the amorphous war on terror.
U.S. airstrikes and boots on the ground have dramatically increased in 2017. This is happening without any public debate, congressional authorization, or the most basic argument from the White House as to how, exactly, this military intervention is obligatory. To all appearances, it is a new theater of war without end or focus, undertaken without due consideration of necessity, unintended consequences, or realistic prospects of conclusion.
As the U.S. is currently fighting at least seven foreign wars, depending on how you count them, a review of the facts may be in order here. Somalia is about half the size of Texas but rather more sparsely populated. It boasts probable untapped oil reserves and the longest coastline on the African continent, a coast strategically valuable for its proximity to Gulf states like Saudi Arabia.
The nation’s post-colonial history has been marked by a military dictatorship fostered, as military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich notes, by Cold War-era “Soviet-American competition for Somali affections.” That contest solidified in the form of both superpowers funneling weapons into the fragile state to satisfy the autocrat’s lust for firepower. When the dictatorship finally broke down at the Cold War’s end, a United Nations coalition intervened in the ensuinginternal conflict. That U.S.-led intervention under the Clinton administration reached its tragic climax in the Battle of Mogadishu.
The aftermath of the battle and the public uproar it produced led to drawdowns of American military presence in Somalia, but in retrospect, that change turned out to be more pause than reset. U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) began bombing Somalia in 2007, and independent observers haverecorded U.S. strikes on the country in all but two years since.
The last three years have seen a marked increase in reported strikes as local militants began to declare allegiance to the Islamic State. Where from 2007 to 2014 the busiest year had just three bombings, 2015 through 2017 all have seen double digits, peaking at 26 this year to date. That means more than one-third of the United States’ entire post-9/11 bombing campaign (62 confirmed strikes) in Somalia happened in 2017. Even if we limit our count to strikes AFRICOM has announced (18 in 2017), we see the same dramatic upward trend on a slightly smaller scale.
And then there are the ground troops. As Politico documented, the “number of U.S. military forces in Somalia has more than doubled this year to over 500 people” — there were just 50 Americans there as recently as early April — “as the Pentagon has quietly posted hundreds of additional special operations personnel to advise local forces in pockets of Islamic militants around the country.” The nature of the intervention is reportedly changing, too, with a degree of mission creep setting in as “advise and assist” transforms intobattlefield engagement. These 500 troops are the largest U.S. presence in Somalia since the events of Black Hawk Down. While the Pentagon denied toPolitico that this tenfold increase could be called a “build-up,” it is difficult to see how it could be labeled otherwise.
It is even more difficult to see how this escalation is justified, what concrete benefit it will yield for U.S. security, how much it might cost, or when it will ever end.