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How the US can end its ‘forever war’ in Somalia

How the US can end its ‘forever war’ in Somalia

How the US can end its ‘forever war’ in Somalia
September 09
12:00 2022

A year after withdrawing from Afghanistan, the United States is reaching the 14th anniversary of its war on terror in Somalia. For the conflict to finally end, the U.S. needs to drastically change its battle strategy against the terrorist group al-Shabab, a Somalia-based Al-Qaeda ally that has antagonized East Africa for a decade. Specifically, The U.S must decrease the use of drone strikes in Somalia and reassess its strategy against al-Shabab.

In May, President Joe Biden ordered U.S. troops to return to Somalia before approving a mission targeting nearly 12 al-Shabab leaders, undoing Donald Trump’s command to withdraw more than a year prior. Despite this, airstrikes under the Biden administration have been used mostly as a defensive measure.

It’s a stark contrast from his predecessors, Trump, Obama and Bush — all signed off on a total of 262 drone strikes in Somalia, resulting in the deaths of nearly 2,000 people. Between 1,417 and 1,800 drone strike fatalities were militants, but an exact number can’t be confirmed, according to a report by New America.

The Intercept investigated U.S. involvement in Somalia and Yemen from January 2012 to February 2013, revealing that 90 percent of drone strike fatalities were not the intended target.

“Frankly, I don’t think we know who we killed,” a U.S official told the Washington Post after the first drone strike in 2007.

Ten years later, The U.S. in Africa Command, or AFRICOM, states that their drone strikes have left no civilian casualties since President Biden took office. Still, AFRICOM admits that its data differs from non-governmental organizations because it has a more complex process of reporting civilian casualties based on several intelligence sources.

AFRICOM’s online portal to submit civilian casualties is only accessible to individuals who speak English. Two percent of the population has access to the internet. An even smaller amount of the population can speak English because the national languages are Somali and Arabic. To put it simply, when it comes to terrorism, Somali citizens are guilty until proven innocent.

An anonymous former al-Shabab intelligence officer insists that drone strikes scare al-Shabab militants and make the American-backed Danab force especially intimidating, according to a Vice News report. For years, U.S officials have relied on drones to prevent American soldier fatalities.

However, civilian casualties caused by excess drone strikes could risk motivating any al-Shabab sentiment leading to an increase in enemy recruits. The U.S. government reported that al-Shabab obtained drones of their own, according to Somali news site Hiraan Online, indicating a new era of violence in southern Somalia, where the group is based.

Terrorist groups like al-Shabab may have a lot of infighting, but they have nearly seamless power transitions. Kill one leader and another will spring up. It’s been an endless cycle of warfare that has left Somalis vulnerable to violence. A more effective way of attacking al-Shabab would be to hinder their streams of income.

Al-Shabab’s sources of financial support range from drug trafficking to imposing taxes on civilians. Nearly half of al- Shabab’s tax revenue comes from Mogadishu, the country’s capital, according to BBC. By assisting in the establishment of a strong democracy that prioritizes its citizens’ safety, al-Shabab will have fewer chances to extort citizens and will weaken.

Some argue that leaving Somalia altogether is the best option, however, last year’s events in Afghanistan are a strong example of what can go wrong. The U.S. owes Somalia its involvement because it is partially to blame for the very existence of al-Shabab. For decades, the U.S. has backed entities that have stripped Somalis of their autonomy — from backing Somalia’s genocidal former dictatorship to pressuring Ethiopia’s two year occupation of Somalia in 2007.

Al-Shabab isn’t just a Somali or East African problem. If the group succeeds then it has the ability to support other Al-Qaeda organizations and threaten American interests. President Biden argued that the U.S. should focus on counterterrorism, not nation-building, in a 2021 White House press release about the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. That mentality won’t work in Somalia, where al-Shabab takes advantage of the government’s lack of infrastructure.

The current administration has promised an end to forever wars while engaging in a seemingly aimless operation in Somalia. After failing in Afghanistan, it seems pointless to continue the same counterterrorism strategy. Reducing Somali victims to collateral damage in a fruitless plan will only create a cycle of violence ending in another catastrophic failure for the U.S..

Featured Illustration by Erika Sevilla

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Hana Musa

Hana Musa

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