America’s Somalia Experiment

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America’s Somalia Experiment

The US military’s ‘offshore balancing’ strategy is likely to be applied to the Asia-Pacific. But there could be some troubling and unintended consequences if it is.

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.

Eighteen years later, Somali’s problems are largely unchanged. Today, as in the early ’90s, fighting splits Somalia – although this time the major division is between the internationally-backed Transitional Federal Government and the hard-line Al Shabab Islamic group, rather than strictly between the clans. The current famine, meanwhile, is unequivocally as bad as that in the early ’90s, with as many as half of Somalia’s eight million people dependent on food aid.

Both sides in the Somalia conflict are ‘weaponizing’ humanitarian shipments. Al Shabab has banned the United Nations and aid groups from distributing aid in the territories Al Shabab controls, calling aid a tool of Western powers aiming to control Somalia. Al Shabab fighters have reportedly killed several families fleeing Al Shabab territory for areas where food is still being handed out.

Meanwhile, corrupt TFG officials are allegedly withholding donated food and doling it out at their own whim. ‘Whatever humanitarian (agencies) donate doesn’t reach the right people who deserve the donations, but instead goes astray to the wrong people,’ says Khalif Bashir Ali, unofficial leader of the Afgoye refugee camps just outside Mogadishu.

Today, hundreds of thousands of refugees are on the move in Somalia. Some head for Afgoye; others are bound for Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and other neighbouring countries – all of which are struggling with droughts of their own and so can’t safely absorb starving Somalis. That’s exactly the kind of dire scenario that US Army Maj. Shannon Beebe, an Africa strategist, probably pictured when he warned against ‘insecurities and the conditions of human beings that create…insecurities across state borders.’

Conditions today are very similar to those that led to the bloody 1992 US intervention in Somalia. But there won’t be a repeat. Memories of the Battle of Mogadishu, not to mention the continuing trauma of the United States’ land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mean Washington has zero appetite for more large-scale troops deployments.

Instead, the United States pursued separate air, naval and proxy ground campaigns that, today, have combined into a major demonstration of offshore balancing – but not without some serious hiccups along the way.

A Lost Decade

By 1995, the last US and UN troops had evacuated Somalia. For years following the end of the peacekeeping mission, Washington — and most foreign governments, for that matter – all but gave up on trying to influence events in the ruined country.

In a decade of isolation, a new form of government arose in the war-torn country. With everyday Somalis becoming more radicalized, a loose system of Islamic judges arose in Mogadishu. Their courts merged into a highly legalized but rudimentary government known as the Islamic Courts Union.

The ICU was a mix of hard-line and moderate Islamists. It was fairly popular and enjoyed a high level of support from Eritrea, which has long viewed Somalia as a proxy in its ongoing feud with neighbouring Ethiopia. The hardliners, and Eritrea’s patronage, together represented the seeds of the ICU’s destruction. But for a few years, there was relative calm in Somalia under the ICU’s reign.

Then al-Qaeda attacked the United States. In an instant, Washington’s attitude towards Islamists in any country hardened. Somalia no longer got a pass, though a working US policy for that country took several years to evolve. And it’s fair to say it didn’t evolve organically. For in 2006, Ethiopia, which had been positioning itself as a US partner in counter-terrorism, essentially hijacked Washington’s nascent Somalia strategy when it proposed a joint invasion of Somalia aimed at destroying the ICU. In usurping US efforts, Ethiopia exposed a major flaw in offshore balancing, specifically in its reliance on proxy ground forces with their own, sometimes competing, interests.

The ICU didn’t explicitly advocate terrorism, and there were probably only a handful of al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in Somalia at the time. But that nuance was lost on the George W. Bush Administration. Washington pledged support for the Ethiopian attack, including ‘intelligence sharing, arms aid and training,’ according to USA Today.

With this backing, plus air cover provided by US AC-130 gunships and carrier-based fighters and assistance on the ground by US Special Forces, the Ethiopian army launched a Blitzkrieg-style assault on Somalia in December 2006.

Ethiopian tanks quickly routed the ICU’s lightly armed fighters. ‘The Somalia job was fantastic,’ Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan told then-US Central Commander boss Gen. John Abizaid in 2007.

The Bush Administration agreed with that assessment, at least initially. And the proxy approach to African security challenges quickly became central to Washington’s policy for the continent. In 2007, the Pentagon formed a new regional command called ‘Africa Command’ to oversee operations in most of Africa.

Africom has just a few hundred permanent, uniformed staff. Its mission is to deter and resolve conflicts ‘by building partner nation capacity,’ according to Vicki Huddleston, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for African Affairs. More so than other US regional commands, Africom would heavily rely on offshore balancing, particularly its proxy component.

Inasmuch as Ethiopia’s US-enabled invasion of Somalia was an early test of this partial offshoring construct, it proved a failure.

Better Proxies

In Somalia, the Ethiopian invasion and subsequent two-year occupation only served to rally the country’s Islamic extremists. Al Shabab coalesced from the remains of the ICU’s armed wing and launched a bloody, and surprisingly popular, insurgency against the Ethiopians.

Also targeted: the UN- and US-sponsored Transition Federal Government, formed under the protection of the Ethiopians, plus the new African Union peacekeeping force composed mostly of Ugandan and Burundian troops and funded by the United Nations and Washington.

Al Shabab also strengthened ties with al-Qaeda, which had sent operatives to advise clan forces during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and, more than a decade later, still maintained a small presence in Somalia. The al-Qaeda-Al Shabab alliance helped Al Shabab pull off a twin suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2010 that killed 74 people.

The Kampala attack was Al Shabab’s first foreign attack, but not its first suicide bombing. That came on Oct. 29, 2008, when 26-year-old, American-born Shirwa Ahmed blew himself up outside a government building in northern Somalia, killing more than 20 people.Ahmed was one of as many as 50 young, disaffected Somali-Americans Al Shabab has recruited mostly from the large Somali community in Minneapolis – and mostly by painting Al Shabab as freedom fighters against the Ethiopians. Ahmed was ‘as American as apple pie’ before Al Shabab got to him, according to an acquaintance.

The recruitment of Somali-American youths sparked fears that some young people might return to the United States to conduct terror attacks. In cooperation with leaders of the Somali-American community, the FBI launched a major operation to intercept returning recruits.

Al Shabab’s rise spawned the first large contingent of American-born international terrorists. That alone was reason for Washington to regret backing the Ethiopian invasion. ‘We’ve made a lot of mistakes and Ethiopia’s entry in 2006 was not a really good idea,’ Acting Assistant Secretary of State Donald Yamamoto said in a 2010 speech.

Although the Obama administration insisted that backing the Ethiopians was wrong, the new regime in Washington was still very much in favour of using proxies to advance US policy goals in Somalia. It was simply a matter of choosing better proxies.

A new constellation of US partners quickly aligned following the Ethiopians’ final departure in January 2009. As the Ethiopians retreated, Washington increased its support for the African Union peacekeepers, whose softer approach –plus the critical fact that they weren’t Ethiopian –meant they were less unpopular with everyday Somalis.

With training and logistics provided by US military personnel and DynCorp contractors, the African Union nearly doubled the size of its Mogadishu peacekeeping force to 9,000 troops. By the end of 2009, Washington had invested $135 million in the peacekeepers’ training, equipment and payroll.

With its Ethiopian protectors gone, in January 2009 the TFG collapsed. Many of its officials fled the country. Into the power vacuum stepped an unlikely new leader: Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a moderate Islamist and former president of the ICU.

Counter-intuitively, Ahmed vowed a closer alliance with the African Union, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union. Washington was quick to back Ahmed as he reformed the TFG. ‘We’re in a very promising moment. It’s fragile, but all new beginnings are,’ a State Department official said.

In May 2009, Washington provided the TFG with $2 million to buy weapons on the local market. With millions of dollars in acknowledged and covert funding, Washington also bankrolled an Ethiopian programme to donate $250 per man plus guns, rockets and ammo to any Somali clan that could raise a militia force to fight Al Shabab – this according to Somalia Report, a new online publication run by famed war correspondent Robert Young Pelton.

On top of all that, between 2009 and 2010 Washington shipped, via DynCorp, nearly 100 tons of weaponry to Uganda for onward distribution to TFG fighters. US officials also pushed for the EU to offer training and funding for the peacekeepers and TFG forces.

Today, Ahmed’s TFG and the AU peacekeepers still represent the main fronts for US efforts to resolve Somalia’s two-decade crisis. As the famine worsens and pressure grows for Washington to play a larger role, the TFG and African Union will most likely be the vehicles for that intervention. ‘That's going to require an international response, and Africa will have to be a partner,’ Obama said of the famine on July 29.

There’s already evidence this is happening. In late July, Ugandan army Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, spokesman for the peacekeepers, announced the completion of a ‘short tactical offensive operation’ meant to safeguard food distribution. That operation turned into a major attack that routed Al Shabab troops, resulting in the TFG's first big territorial gains in several years.

But Al Shabab isn’t defeated. The group still controls much of southern Somalia, and has vowed to launch hit-and-run attacks inside Mogadishu. The ground war rages on. 


US support for the peacekeepers and the TFG represents the proxy portion of Washington’s offshore balancing in Somalia. Naval patrols, Special Forces raids and strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles round out the strategy. At first, however, the main air and sea initiatives weren’t directly tied to the proxy fight on the ground.

In parallel with its support for Ethiopia's attack on Somalia, the Pentagon in 2006 was in the process of standing up an East African counter-terrorism complex anchored by secret bases reportedly in Ethiopia and Kenya. From there, US Special Forces and armed drones struck at terrorist targets in Somalia, occasionally in cooperation with naval forces. 

In 2007, Special Operations Command aircraft launched at least two helicopter raids on al-Qaeda and Al Shabab operatives in Somalia. On no fewer than three occasions in 2007 and 2008, commandos spotted targets for US warships firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Somali targets. Some of the same warships help make up Combined Task Force 150, a US-led international naval force assigned to intercept arms shipments bound for Al Shabab and al-Qaeda in Somalia.

SOCOM helicopters infiltrating Somalia killed al-Qaeda bomber Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan on Sept. 14, 2009. Two, possibly three, airstrikes on Somali terror targets between 2009 and June of this year have been attributed to American UAVs, at least one of which has crashed in Somalia. Many other attacks have surely gone unreported. None has resulted in acknowledged US casualties.

While US support for the TFG has resulted in the killing of at least one high-profile terrorist –Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, gunned down by a TFG guard at a Mogadishu checkpoint on June 7 –most of the direct counter-terrorism work in Somalia is executed by offshore US forces.

That now includes warships previously dedicated solely to chasing pirates. When the pirates allied with Al Shabab this year, the counter-piracy naval patrols became a de facto part of the counter-terrorism campaign. With that unification of once-separate efforts, offshore balancing for Somalia finally, and fully, coalesced. 

The Piracy-Terrorism Nexus

With the collapse of the Somali government and, by extension, Somalia's ability to police its waters, in the late 1990s trawlers from industrialized nations began operating illegally in Somalia's rich tuna fisheries. Armed Somali fishermen began boarding vessels in their waters, demanding ‘fees.’ It was a small step for these self-declared ‘coast guards’ to begin seizing entire vessels and their crews and demanding multi-million-dollar ransoms.

By the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, thousands of pirates were capturing hundreds of commercial vessels every year. As they grew more successful, pirates evolved into well-organized, deeply-financed international criminal operations with informants and financiers scattered across the globe.

The US Navy led an international military response. NATO began deploying one of its Standing Maritime Groups to the Indian Ocean, usually with an American warship attached. In 2009, the Pentagon established Combined Task Force 151, a predominantly US counter-piracy formation that also includes foreign warships. The European Union has its own, similar force. All the task forces share intelligence and logistics.

By 2009, there were some three dozen warships from a dozen nations patrolling the Indian Ocean for pirates. And while ‘piracy has its roots on land,’ according to Martin Murphy, an independent naval analyst, for a while it was possible to view US-led naval operations as separate from the offshore counter-terrorism. 

Indeed, the ICU, Al Shabab and other Somali Islamic groups had cracked down on piracy in their territories, declaring it un-Islamic and a threat to law and order. Muhammad Shamsaddin Megalommatis, an Al Shabab propagandist, called for the ‘termination of…Somali piracy’ in a 2009 article. Despite the claims of many US analysts and officials, before 2011 there were no proven links between Al Shabab and pirates. If anything, the two groups were at odds.

That began to change this year. 

Possibly under pressure from US counter-finance efforts that have cut off electronic money transfers, Al Shabab is reportedly broke, and desperate for new sources of income. Piracy is currently Somalia’s biggest industry, in revenue terms. It was perhaps only a matter of time before Al Shabab sacrificed its Islamic principles and sought ties with the pirates.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported in July that Al Shabab has begun running protection for pirates based in the southern town of Kismayu. ‘Detained pirates tell us that some level of cooperation with Al Shabab is necessary to run a criminal enterprise,’ UNODC’s Alan Cole told Reuters. Reuters’ investigation found that Al Shabab’s ‘marine office’ received payments from pirates totalling more than $1 million between February and May.

That means that preventing pirate attacks is vital to defeating Al Shabab. And beating Al Shabab is vital to ending the Somali terror threat. Once-separate military efforts – one each targeting Al Shabab, terrorists and pirates – have now, in effect, become one comprehensive offshore balancing campaign.

The Downside of Hands-Off Warfare

Make no mistake: The United States is at war in Somalia, and will likely only deepen its involvement as the present famine worsens. But that won’t mean large troop deployments as in 1992. Today’s intervention is unlike anything that was possible 19 years ago.

And that means risks unlike anything experienced 19 years ago. Today, it’s hard to imagine that many American service members could die carrying out the US Somalia strategy. However, this hands-off approach to warfare leaves Washington vulnerable to exploitation.

Just as Ethiopia in a sense hijacked US counter-terrorism efforts when it pushed for a joint invasion of Somalia, it’s apparent that some of the United States’ other partners in the country are taking advantage of the money and other resources Washington is pouring into Somalia.

Pelton’s Somalia Report expertly detailed widespread corruption among AU peacekeepers in Mogadishu. The under-paid peacekeepers routinely sell US-supplied weapons and ammo to intermediaries who then sell it to Al Shabab, allegedly providing the majority of Al Shabab’s arms, in some categories. ‘The UN’s own records confirm this,’ Pelton writes. ‘An RPG captured from Al Shabab was analysed and determined to have been delivered by DynCorp to the Ministry of Defense in Uganda.’

Just as the Ethiopian invasion provoked Al Shabab’s backlash and the rise of Somali-American terrorists, US arms shipments sustain both sides in the fighting, quite possibly making the Somalia conflict worse and compelling greater US involvement down the road.

It’s politically easier to throw good money after bad in Somalia-style indirect interventions than it is to send more Americans to die in ill-conceived direct wars – although, of course, critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars might disagree. Offshore interventions could, then, defy easy resolution even when they’re going badly. 

After the United States’ spectacular defeat in the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the US Congress successfully pressured the Clinton Administration into ending the US intervention after only two years. Today, no one expects a quick or easy victory in Somalia – or an end to American efforts anytime soon, despite the lack of clear progress in fundamentally solving Somalia’s problems.

Sure, it’s relatively bloodless – so much so that few Americans appreciate that their country is at war in Somalia. But this is one US conflict that seems like it might never end. As an exercise in offshore balancing, US assistance for Libyan rebels might end up seeming deceptively easy, inexpensive and, at just six months, shockingly brief.

Washington’s offshore balancing campaign in Somalia, by contrast, is already five years old and, despite recent progress, could continue for years to come. If proxy armies and air and sea power are the basic tenets of future US interventions in Asia, then Americans must gird themselves for wars that, while relatively bloodless for the United States, could drag on at least as long as the boots-on-the-ground interventions of the previous decade – and that could end up being essentially hijacked by self-interested allies, further prolonging them.

The apparent lesson from Libya is that offshore balancing is easy for Washington. Somalia reminds us that it’s not always so – that even wars fought mostly by ships, planes, Special Forces and foreign proxies are still wars. They’re ugly, complicated and risky. Policymakers and voters would do well to remember that as US attention shifts to the tense Asia-Pacific region and its many emerging conflicts.