Strategic Gridlock in America’s Second Somalia War

By: Brian Hayes, Columnist

Photo Credit: Newsweek

In the last quarter century, the United States has twice intervened in Somalia. The first intervention—made famous by the book and film Blackhawk Down—ended in failure in 1995. The second intervention, less well known, is now in its eleventh year. From relatively narrow counterterrorism objectives—hunting down a few core al-Qa’ida members for whom Somalia served as a safe haven—the US mission statement has expanded to include support for “Somali-led efforts to stabilize and rebuild their country along democratic and federal lines.”[i] However, Somalia remains one of the world’s most fragile states, with an active Islamist insurgency despite a decade-long US effort. It is worth asking: does the United States have a viable Somalia strategy?

The United States has remained continually engaged in Somalia since backing Ethiopia’s invasion of that country in 2006.[ii] Except for an occasional sensational raid, US operations in Somalia stayed largely out of public sight until 2014, when the United States acknowledged that approximately 120 special operations forces were deployed there. [iii] That presence has since grown and may now consist of more than 500 personnel, including conventional forces assigned to train their Somali counterparts. [iv]

A central element of US operations in Somalia has been the use of armed unmanned aircraft to target terrorist leaders. According to the Long War Journal, the United States has carried out air strikes against al-Shabaab, a Somali al-Qa’ida affiliate, since 2007. At first this consisted of a handful of strikes per year, primarily against al-Shabaab leaders.[v] However, the quantity and scope of the strikes have increased significantly since then; through the first eleven months of 2017, the United States carried out 28 strikes in Somalia, seven within a single week.[vi]

Unfortunately, success in killing terrorist leaders has not translated to broader security gains. By some measures, Somalia is both more dangerous and more fragile than before the US intervention began. In the countryside, al-Shabaab continues to control territory, attacks and seizes bases used by African Union soldiers, imposes taxes, and carries out reprisals against civilians who support the government or violate Islamic law.[vii] Government officials are routinely assassinated on the streets of Mogadishu and an October 2017 bombing in the capital killed hundreds. [viii]

Although improving Somali security forces is a central pillar of US policy, those forces continue to perform poorly.[ix] Some Somali soldiers have fought each other, while others have defected to the insurgency or taken to criminal activity. [x] The sixth most fragile state in the world in 2006 according to the Fund for Peace index, Somalia has claimed the first or second spot in each year since 2008.[xi] It has also ranked as Transparency International’s most corrupt country in each year since 2007.[xii]

Somalia’s malaise has lasted more than 25 years. The country currently faces multiple crises, including a lack of government legitimacy, poverty, continual threats of drought and food insecurity, and a committed and sophisticated insurgency, and it seems unlikely that matters will measurably improve in the short term. In light of this, the United States should re-evaluate its Somalia strategy. In doing so, it should ask the following questions:

  • What US national security interests are truly at stake in Somalia?
  • What realistic goals does the United States seek to accomplish there?
  • What is the likely cost of accomplishing those goals in terms of money, time, and troops?

It is hard to make the case that America’s interest in combatting terrorism justifies a continued and indefinite intervention in Somalia. Al-Shabaab is an East African insurgent movement with primarily local goals; a handful of Americans have traveled to join the group, but al-Shabaab has not exported terror back to the United States and seems unlikely to do so. Moreover, years of security force assistance and direct action have done little to reduce al-Shabaab’s effectiveness, and there is little reason to believe that success is just around the corner.

There is an even smaller chance that the United States can achieve more ambitious objectives, such as those stated by US Africa Command (stability and rebuilding the country along democratic and federal lines). Somalia is unlikely to become a healthy or stable nation in this generation, and US efforts to improve Somalia’s government and security forces, however admirable, have little chance of success. If the United States cannot articulate realistic objectives for intervention in Somalia, it is time to ask whether its continued presence makes sense.

[i] Jeffrey Gettleman and Eric Scmitt, “U.S. Kills Top Qaeda Militant in Somalia,” The New York Times, September 15, 2009.; U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs, “Why the U.S. Military is in Somalia,” November 29, 2017,

[ii] Xan Rice and Suzanne Goldberg, “How US forged an alliance with Ethiopia over invasion,” The Guardian, January 12, 2007.

[iii] Karen Deyoung and Greg Jaffe, “Navy SEALs rescue kidnapped aid workers Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted in Somalia,” The Washington Post, January 25, 2012.; Mark Doyle, “US gives details of its military presence in Somalia,” BBC , July 3, 2014.

[iv] Wesley Morgan, “US Military Builds Up in Land of ‘Black Hawk Down’ Disaster,” Politico, November 19, 2017.; John Vandiver, “101st Airborne Troops Deploy to Somalia For Training Mission,” Stars and Stripes, April 14, 2017.

[v] Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, “U.S. Airstrikes in the Long War,” Long War Journal,

[vi] Eric Schmitt, “After Huge Truck Bombings, US Steps Up Attacks Against Somali Militants,” The New York Times, November 19, 2017.

[vii] Mohamed Olan Hassan, “Al-Shabab Seizes Key Somali Town After Ethiopians Pull Out,” Voice of American, April 3, 2017.; “Somali Al-Shabab Militants Kill Over Homosexual Acts,” Deutsche Welle, January 1, 2017.

[viii] “Somali Militants Assassinate Intelligence Official,” VOA News, September 17, 2017.; “Mogadishu Truck Bombing Death Toll Jumps to 358,” BBC, October 20, 2017.

[ix] Feisel Omar and Abdi Sheikh, “Militants Attack Somali Military Base, Kill at Least 15,” Reuters, September 29, 2017.

[x] Mohamed Olad Hassan, “At Least Six Killed as Rival Somali Troops Clash in Mogadishu,” VOA News, September 6, 2017.; Drazen Jorgic, “Failure to Pay Soldiers Threatens Somalia’s War on Islamists,” Reuters, October 8, 2015.

[xi] Fund For Peace, “Fragile States Index.”

[xii] Transparency International, “Somalia.”

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