Thinking Aloud: “America’s Invisible Wars,” Part III

April 21, 2016 by Darius 

[I recently saw a panel discussion at the CATO Institute on “America’s Invisible Wars.”  The discussion focused on some of America’s lesser-known interventions: Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  The panelists who presented on each of these three countries were all excellent.  I already blogged about Moeed Yusuf of the US Institute of Peace, who discussed US involvement in Pakistan, and  Charles Schmitz of the Middle East Institute, who discussed Yemen.  Today, I’ll share the comments of Bronwyn Bruton of the Atlantic Council, who spoke about Somalia.]

Bruton began with a description of Somalia as it stood on September 10, 2001.  According to Bruton, by 2001, the chaos of the 1990s was over, and throughout Somalia, violence was at a low level.  Critically, there was no significant radical Islamist activity, despite the fact that al-Qaeda had made a deliberate effort to base itself in Somalia during the 1990s.  Al-Qaeda found it impossible to work in Somalia thanks to the clan politics, warlords, and climate, and was effectively forced to retreat from Somalia in defeat.

However, Bruton said that after 9/11, the US decided it could no longer afford to leave Somalia alone.  This decision was based on two perceptions: first, that most Somalis hated Americans (which stemmed from the Black Hawk Down incident of the 1990s), and second, that a security vacuum would inevitably lead to terrorism taking root in Somalia, despite al-Qaeda’s attempt and failure.  The US marshaled Somalia’s neighbors to create a government for Somalia.  This provoked an immediate backlash of Somali public opinion, and individual members of the Somali “government” set up in Nairobi became targets for assassination.

According to Bruton, at this point, the CIA decided more intervention in Somalia was needed.  The CIA chose to recruit warlords to do its dirty work.  The corruption, violence, and generally heavy-handed tactics of these CIA-backed warlords provoked a massive public uprising that forced the warlords out of the capital, Mogadishu.  The only institution remotely capable of governing was a council made up of religious authorities called the Union of Islamic Courts.  Although Bruton said the UIC was in retrospect extremely moderate, the Bush administration thought the UIC was a front for al-Qaeda.  On the basis of this false assumption, in 2006, the US gave a green light to an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia.

The Ethiopian invasion quickly took Mogadishu, destroyed the UIC, and installed the supposed government in exile.  However, given Ethiopia’s status as Somalia’s traditional enemy, the Ethiopian occupation provoked massive discontent.  Within a year, a new group arose to oppose the Ethiopian occupation: al-Shabaab.

Ethiopian casualties quickly mounted, and Ethiopia was forced to end its unilateral occupation.  With US backing, the Ethiopian troops were replaced by an African Union peacekeeping force whose mandate was to protect the Somali “government,” which, according to Bruton, would not last for a day without foreign troops to prop it up.  Bruton said that for the next three years, due to its tendency to deploy enormous, indiscriminate firepower in civilian areas, the AU force was responsible for 95% of civilian casualties in Somalia.

In 2010, al-Shabaab unilaterally withdrew from Mogadishu, though not in defeat.  In 2011, though, a famine in Somalia was largely blamed on al-Shabaab, leading to a major erosion of its political support.  The AU peacekeeping force reformed its practices of engagement and managed to win a large amount of territory back from al-Shabaab.

In 2011, though, Kenya decided to invade Somalia.  The US decided to add Kenya to the AU peacekeeping force, instantly undoing all the goodwill the AU force had attained in the previous year.  The Kenyan invasion did little other than make Kenya a major target for Shabaab terrorist attacks.

Today, there are approximately 20,000 African Union troops in Somalia.  It is not nearly enough to stabilize the country.  The ostensible Somali government remains far too weak to survive on its own.  Al-Shabaab is active throughout East Africa and retains enough power in Somalia itself to serve as an effective spoiler of anything the government or anyone else tries to accomplish.

Bruton blasted US policy in the harshest terms.  She felt the US turned a country that was largely peaceful into a country that is aggressively exporting terrorism and has destabilized the entire region.  She noted, however, that the US’s failure is not due to bad intentions or excessive intervention.  In fact, the US has kept its role to a minimum and is the only player involved with a genuine concern for the Somali people and for Somali civilian casualties.  Instead, as Bruton said, the US has irreparably harmed Somalia by providing political cover for Ethiopia and Kenya to run amok in Somalia.  She felt direct US action in Somalia would have been far better.

Troublingly, according to Bruton, the US has persistently refused to learn from its mistakes in Somalia.  In fact, the US does not see Somalia as a mistake at all: first President Bush and then President Obama have held up the US’s strategy in Somalia as a success that can be replicated elsewhere in Africa rather than acknowledging that US strategy there has been a catastrophic failure.

Bruton said the US could not have designed a worse outcome for Somalia.  She felt that given al-Qaeda’s failure to enter Somalia during the 1990s, it is likely that without US intervention, al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab would still not be in Somalia.  She summed up what US policy has done to Somalia: “The US took its worst nightmare and turned it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

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