America’s Somalia Experiment
Image Credit: US Navy

America’s Somalia Experiment


The tide seemed to turn in an instant. After six months of fighting and thousands of NATO air sorties, the Libyan civil war rapidly reached its endgame late last month, as internationally-backed rebel fighters stormed Tripoli.

Mostly, it was a victory for the Libyan people, who have long suffered under Muammar Gaddafi’s dictatorial rule. But the fall of Tripoli was also an apparent success for a new US military strategy, one gaining favour as the bloody, expensive land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan slowly wind down.

It’s called ‘offshore balancing,’ and it’s an approach meant to minimize long-term deployments of large ground armies by emphasizing air and naval forces working in conjunction with local and regional ‘proxy’ armies. In coming years, offshore balancing could guide the United States’ interventions in world crises, particularly in the Asia-Pacific.

Any US president thinking of fighting another land war in Asia should ‘have his head examined,’ former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in February. In 2009, Vice President Joe Biden famously proposed quickly off-shoring the Afghanistan war, a notion Barack Obama rejected in favour of a slowly-shrinking major ground presence through 2014, with a likely shift to offshore balancing after that date. 

‘The Libyan intervention, which involves only air and naval assets and no ground forces, is an excellent example of offshore balancing,’ wrote Lawrence Korb, a veteran analyst with the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. But there’s an even better example, one that could either reinforce support for offshore balancing or doom the concept – and at the very least serves as an important test case.

The complex US-led intervention in Somalia, a decade in the making, represents offshore balancing at its most potent and urgent. The Libyan rebellion was outside the United States’ core interests. For Washington, intervening in Libya was optional. But Somalia, a failed state since 1991 and an al-Qaeda safe haven, represents a direct threat to the United States, and indeed has inspired the first American suicide bombers.

If offshore balancing, with its emphasis on air and sea power and proxy armies, is to define the US strategic approach to Asia and the Pacific, it first must succeed in Somalia.

For advocates of the strategy, there are reasons for hope. US offshore balancing in Somalia came together gradually, almost by accident, as separate interventions chased the converging problems of famine, terrorism and piracy. Today, this increasingly unified US effort seems to finally be bearing fruit, as American-supported foreign armies rapidly gain ground against al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist fighters.

However, sceptics too might find ammunition in the United States’ Somalia strategy. For while current US efforts in Somalia have managed to avoid a major ground-force deployment – and  indeed have been essentially bloodless for Washington – they have at the same time failed to bring a speedy end to the country's crises. The recent territory gains are encouraging but hardly decisive – and certainly reversible.

Moreover, there have been some worrying unintended consequences of the United States’ heavy reliance on proxy armies in Somalia. Namely, these foreign allies sometimes hijack well-intentioned US efforts, redirecting them for their own purposes.

In that sense, Somalia highlights both the benefits of offshore balancing, and the risks. On the one hand, Washington can intervene without sacrificing American lives. On the other, these interventions can be messy – and can last at least as long, if not longer, than the major ground wars that have made offshore balancing appear so appealing in the first place.             

A Brief History of a Long War

Somalia’s current troubles began in 1991, with the overthrow of autocratic president Siad Barre by clan-based rebel groups. A deadly famine struck in the wake of the revolt. Clan warlords began hoarding aid shipments, essentially using food and other supplies as a weapon.

That led Washington to launch a military-led humanitarian intervention alongside a large UN peacekeeping force. The US and UN deployment peaked at around 28,000 people in 1992. It was an intervention that, in design, was essentially the opposite of offshore balancing.

Though it succeeded in breaking the warlords’ hold on aid distribution, this boots-on-the-ground approach culminated in disaster when 19 US and UN troops and as many as 1,000 Somalis died in two days of fighting in Mogadishu in October 1993. The Battle of Mogadishu is the subject of the book and movie Black Hawk Down.

Abdirazak Osman
July 11, 2013 at 20:22

Strategies that worked and might have been counterproductive in the meantime

September 10, 2011 at 09:00

“Offshore balancing” might sound great to American policy makers far removed from the troubles in Africa. But mark my words, there will be hell to pay in the future.

America will have to make compromises with very nasty dictators and box itself into a corner when the people rise up against these unsavoury fellows. America will be accused (rightly so) of being a more malign influence in Africa than China and in a World where China is now Africa’s largest trading partner, this is a risk that should not be taken.

I respect America’s technology, but its strategic incompetence is legendary.It is as if all the lessons of Afghanistan (Mujahdeen during the Soviet invasion have been unlearned).

This kind of thing never ends well.

Yankee go home!!

September 10, 2011 at 01:32

Offshore balancing practices in Africa are highly unlikely to be applied to East Asia. The U.S. will use a mix of offshore concepts with traditional practices such as permanent bases in East Asia. Gotta give the author credit for trying, but it’s too hard to compare East Africa with East Asia. America’s allies in East Asia are stable, established powers which have similar strategic interests to the U.S. In contrast, Africa is a mess of shifting powers and interests. You’d need to write an entire book to distill any similarities which these two regions have in terms of their importance and focus for the U.S.

September 8, 2011 at 07:51

This is the first time I have heard of the term “offshore balancing”. It is surprising that this method isn’t brought up more in debates about military action. The concept is sound in its self that offshore balancing would protect America’s interest and American lives at the same time. This strategy also seems like a viable way for President Obama to get American foot soldiers out of Afghanistan and Iraq and still have a military presence in both countries. If the method can work in Libya it should work more efficiently in Iraq and Afghanistan because the troops on the ground would be American trained and supplied Iraqi and Afghanistan armies. Although it could also be more difficult because in both Iraq and Afghanistan the enemy isn’t an army like it is in Libya, it is just a bunch of locale cells. This strategy defiantly has the potential to change the way America gets involved in conflicts abroad.

yang zi
September 7, 2011 at 02:02

offshore balancing is a smart strategy. but this requires a responsible US administration. down the road, it might develop into a mercenary force. for example, if some anti-government force want US help, US can extract a promise to pay for the mission. If US use this model on Iraq, it could have all the Iraq oil.

Libya is the same, the new gov. should pay the cost of NATO bombs.

September 7, 2011 at 01:40

You do realize the ‘U.S. empire’ has evolved right? It is no longer just the US, but China and every other modern or modernizing country in the world that has a stake in the world becoming stable so financial markets can become more predictable and therefore more profitable.

Even if you want leave the ‘offshore balancing’ to someone else, it cannot be done because no else has the unified capability to do so in a short amount of time. The US has the largest and most profitable financial markets of any country and since stability is directly to them, the US almost has to intervene to keep prices stable.

As a side note: The current financial markets have only been around for the past 30 to 40 years. The Internet has only been around for about 15 years. The current Internet where I can have a live conversation with people from all over the world has only been around for the past couple years. All the bugs are still being worked out. These are growing pains. Suck ass growing pains.

September 6, 2011 at 04:45

How about we mind our own business and leave the ‘offshore balancing’ strategy to anyone but us. It costs us to much to keep the U.S. empire going.

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