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.

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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.

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