Before these attacks on al-Shabaab militants who were fighting U.S.-trained Somali forces, the Biden team was in something of a holding pattern on U.S. military intervention in Somalia, which the outgoing Trump administration at first escalated and then scaled down at the last minute. “We’re committed to Somalia,” an unnamed senior U.S. official told The Wall Street Journal for a report earlier this month. “What exactly that will look like is still under discussion.”
Last week’s airstrikes may signal that a decision has been made — but unfortunately, not the right one. Instead of prolonging the covert U.S. war in Somalia, Biden should end it.
Because U.S. involvement in Somalia is all but never discussed in Washington, a brief history is in order. The U.S. government has intermittently intervened in Somalia for the better part of three decades. The East African nation has a strategically valuable coastline near Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, possible untapped oil reserves, and a long record of internal conflict and terrorism after a postcolonial dictatorship that was armed to the teeth by Western and Soviet gifts successively and that collapsed at the Cold War’s end. In 1993, Washington intervened in the subsequent civil war as part of a United Nations coalition. After the tragic Battle of Mogadishu — the “Black Hawk Down” incident — U.S. intervention in Somalia paused until 2007.
Since then, Washington has bombed Somalia almost every year, making it a permanent fixture among the dozens of unpublicized military missions our government maintains in about 20 African countries. U.S. troop levels on the ground in Somalia have varied, but by the time of Trump’s December order for nearly all to withdraw, there were around 700 American service members stationed there. That withdrawal was less significant than it may sound, however: Most of the 650 troops who left moved just across the border to sites in Djibouti or Kenya that the Journal describes as “within commuting distance of Somali government training camps.” Though scaled down from its 2017-2020 peak, the intervention continues apace under its fourth consecutive president.
Perhaps by now you’ve noticed something missing in this narrative: legal authorization for the intervention. Neither the George W. Bush administration in 2007 nor any subsequent president who prosecuted this quiet little war ever sought or obtained authorization from Congress, as the Constitution requires. This is an executive branch project initiated without public debate and sustained almost entirely out of the public eye.
Another thing missing: a justification. None of the four presidents who have bombed Somalia since 2007 made a case for this intervention as vital to U.S. national security. Although al-Shabaab has declared allegiance to al-Qaida, its focus is provincial. It is relatively small, thought to number around 6,000 fighters, with as few as 500 “hard-core ideologues.” Its militants can execute obscene suicide attacks on innocents in Mogadishu, but there is no reason to think U.S. airstrikes and occupation are what stands between us and an al-Shabaab attack on U.S. soil.
Indeed, “there's a thousand places we could go to deal with injustice,” as Biden himself has argued. “But the idea of us going to be able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists throughout the world is not within our capacity. The question is: Is America's vital self-interest at stake or the vital self-interest of one of our allies at stake?”
In Somalia, the answer is clearly no. No Somali-born person has ever committed a lethal terrorist attack in the United States. Moreover, the last six months — following Trump’s semi-withdrawal and without a single U.S. airstrike in Somalia — are evidence of the irrelevance of this military meddling to U.S. security. We haven’t bombed there, and nothing happened here.
Insofar as there are any alleged U.S. interests in Somalia, they are interests created by our intervention, which is, in this sense, self-perpetuating. That quality does not make it legal, necessary, or prudent. Biden was right to curtail U.S. drone strikes in Somalia and other places outside active war zones and to scale down other U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Yemen. Now it’s time to stop fighting in Somalia, too.