Photo: U.S. Marines in Somalia in 2020
President Biden is redeploying permanent U.S. ground forces back to Somalia after a one-year hiatus, further committing to an open-ended imperialist military operation first launched by George W. Bush as part of the “Global War on Terror” and continued through the next three administrations successively.
Long overlooked thanks to western media’s deep-seated racism and ignorance about Africa, the endless and self-serving U.S. military intervention in Somalia has greatly facilitated the political fragmentation of the country, increased violence and complicated Somali moves toward stability. Nevertheless, Biden and other U.S. leaders are doubling down on military intervention as the core of U.S. policy in Somalia and the Horn of Africa as a whole.
Biden’s new order authorizes the military to deploy around 500 Special Operations forces inside Somalia where they will have a “persistent presence” throughout the country. It also gives the Pentagon standing authority to extra-judicially assassinate Somali citizens inside Somalia if they stand accused by the imperial United States — acting as judge, jury and executioner — of hostilities. U.S. troop deployment in the Horn of Africa, along with its assassination program inside Somalia, began in the early 2000s.
Somalia, along with the East African states of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti comprise the heart of the Horn of Africa region. This area is considered of great strategic significance by U.S. imperialists. It is the maritime commercial nexus between Africa, Asia and Europe. Forty percent of all trade between Asia and Europe passes through the region’s waterways. Hydrocarbons extracted from the Middle East and African interior are routed through this area, making it one of the world’s core energy nodes.
Not only that, U.S. leaders also view the region as a gateway into the rest of the continent. U.S. capitalists are hungry for this rapidly growing market to become dominated by U.S. interests. Toward this end, the United States would like to secure the region as an important beachhead from which they can counter China, and to a lesser extent Russia, who are viewed by African countries as credible economic alternatives. Trade between China and Africa has advanced at a breathtaking pace. China has been Africa’s largest trading partner for the last 12 years, breaking all previous records in 2021.
This has U.S. imperialists scrambling to revise their “Africa strategy.” At the foundation of that discussion, however, lies a ruling class consensus that a stronger, more united Horn of Africa is unacceptable because it would facilitate a capacity to operate outside the realm of U.S. domination. Rather than accept that Africans can define their own interests, integrate and cooperate with partners of their choosing, the United States continues to have a threat-driven “either you’re with us or against us” strategic approach.
Somalia the target of U.S. endless war
In 2006, when the first unified Somali government appeared in over a decade to the great relief of many in the country, the Bush administration, worried that it might upset the political and military status quo in the region, financed and organized its overthrow within months. Regime change was carried out using proxy forces from Ethiopia, then under the repressive rule of Meles Zenawi, who did Washington’s bidding in the region. In a twist of fate, a 2018 mass uprising drove out the unpopular U.S.-backed regime in Ethiopia, anchored by the discredited Tigray People’s Liberation Front. The TPLF launched a war against the Ethiopian government in 2020.
A new government was democratically elected under the leadership of Abiy Ahmed, who is more independent. The United States is now searching for ways to weaken President Ahmed, including egging on the sectarian TPLF to deepen its war.
The direct outcome of the 2006 U.S.-led overthrow of the Somali government was the political re-fragmentation of Somalia. The dissolution of the government and occupation of Somalia by a combination of foreign forces predictably triggered a nationalist armed insurgency and created the conditions for right-wing militia movements to flourish, of which al-Shabaab became the strongest. Today, al-Shabaab, a loosely organized collection of localized factions, has a sizable military and governing presence in Somalia.
Presidents Obama and Trump both used the “counterterrorism” card to the hilt, drastically ramping up military operations in Somalia as a way to keep a lid on the instability that its own policies had supercharged. Years of intensifying military operations failed to weaken al-Shabaab. Similar to Afghanistan, things had reached a military stalemate, opening up debate within the imperialist establishment over the costs and benefits of the endless, unwinnable U.S. wars of aggression launched under the “Global War on Terror” framework. For many U.S. war planners, winding things down in Somalia and elsewhere became viewed as pragmatic so they could hone in on preparing for bigger future wars with Russia and China.
This set the stage for a sharp pivot at the end of the Trump administration. Going against ruling-class consensus, the Trump White House began exploring the possibility of negotiations with elements inside al-Shabaab to reach a political settlement, and at the same time, ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Somalia by January 2021.
This is the order that President Biden has now reversed, roughly one year later.
When reports of Biden’s reversal broke, the right-wing Wall Street Journal editorial board gave him high praise. “Credit to the President for taking action,” they wrote. Biden’s troop redeployment reflects the majority view among most congressional leaders and Pentagon officials that the military is the main and best lever that the United States possesses to influence events all over Africa. They do not want to scale-back, they want to dig in.
While Somalia’s fledgling central authorities, including outgoing President Mohamed Abdullani Farmaajo and incoming President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, have felt compelled to work with the United States to counter localized threats coming from al-Shabaab, for the United States it is just a way to put more forces on the ground in pursuit of their broader regional goals.
There is one major factor that may have also influenced the timing of Biden’s decision. In 2020, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia independently agreed to form a new regional bloc — the Horn of Africa Cooperation. The formation of a new regional alliance, which includes military cooperation, came as an unwelcome surprise to the United States, who found itself as a very unhappy spectator.
Even though the alliance brings with it new opportunities for stability and African-led development in the Horn of Africa, Washington has spent the last year trying to destabilize the alliance by punishing Ethiopia and Eritrea with a range of new sanctions and information warfare tactics. The United States provided overt and covert assistance to a TPLF armed insurgency in northern Ethiopia.
These policies have caused great human suffering, but accomplished none of U.S. imperialism’s strategic objectives. Biden’s troop redeployment comes in the wake of this failed strategy.