On Sunday, the L.A. Times revealed that the United States is equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to fight Al Shabab, the militant wing of the Islamist Somali government. For now, outsourcing the combat to African countries may appear to bring America minimal risk, but Washington’s renewal of its multidecade attachment to Somalia continues a cycle of deciding its winners and losers. Among an assortment of tribes, clans and African states fighting for self-serving ends, Washington has handcuffed itself to a hornet’s nest.
The hubris of policy makers who believe they can remedy Somalia’s problems could produce policies that draw more recruits to the cause of militant groups, much as similar policies have in the past. Policy makers have failed repeatedly to bring order to the destitute African state, such as when it descended into clan-based warfare in the early 1990s.
At the time, U.S. officials agreed to enforce a March 1993 U.N. resolution that pledged to rehabilitate Somalia’s economy and reestablish national and regional institutions. State Department official David Shinn spoke of “basically re-creating a country,” while then U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright said America’s mission in Somalia “aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country as a proud, functioning and viable member of the community of nations.” The humanitarian mission eventually tasked America’s military with disarming Somali warlords and conducting house-to-house weapons searches. What began as U.S. leaders imbued with the best of intentions eventually ended with our brave military’s ignominious defeat.
Today, the United States fights Al Shabab by proxy. The group poses no direct threat to the security of the United States; however, exaggerated claims about the specter of Al Qaeda could produce policy decisions that exacerbate a localized, regional problem into a global one. Amid news that African troops are doing the fighting but that “The United States is doing almost everything else,” African Union forces could be seen as a puppet proxy of Uncle Sam.
Washington is supplementing the training of African troops with private contractors. Outsourcing makes intervention easier, as policy makers can hide the costs of a mission they have yet to clearly define. Intervention on the cheap also becomes costly in other ways. For a commander in chief who allegedly believes he should take moral responsibility for America’s lethal counterterrorism operations, privatizing intervention allows him and his administration to escape accountability should the forces we train, or the weapons we provide, turn against us or our allies.
Like moths to a flame, disparate Somali groups may rally around the perception they are fighting against the injustice of foreign meddling. Moreover, while military analysts were boasting back in June that Al Shabab could be facing the end of its once-powerful rule, questions surrounding what form of political stability will fill the Al Shabab vacuum remain unasked and unanswered.
The United States began fighting Al Shabab after December 2006, when Washington backed Ethiopia in toppling Somalia’s loose network of Islamist sharia courts. The intervention backfired. The Islamist movement grew more powerful, and today U.S. officials fear Al Qaeda could gain a foothold unless Al Shabab is defeated.
Sadly, America's history of intervention in Somalia aptly demonstrates the resiliency of unintended consequences. Although developments in Somalia have some observers arguing that America should become more involved, the more reasonable conclusion to draw—looking at the historical record—is that America has tried and failed repeatedly to transform Somalia at an acceptable cost.
Image: U.S. Army Africa