Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

If Somalia Is a Success, What Does Failure Look Like?

President Obama laid out a strategy for "degrading and destroying" the Islamic State (IS) on Wednesday night. He called for targeted airstrikes, training local security forces, and more intelligence. Interestingly, he said, "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued ...

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama laid out a strategy for "degrading and destroying" the Islamic State (IS) on Wednesday night. He called for targeted airstrikes, training local security forces, and more intelligence. Interestingly, he said, "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years." The analogy with Somalia is troubling because it suggests the Obama administration is committed to endless military strikes with no political strategy.

Somalia has been without a government that is both internationally recognized and capable of enforcing its writ since 1991. In nearly a quarter-century of state failure, it has predictably become a safe haven for pirates, jihadists, drug smugglers, and arms traffickers (the textbook example of how state failure is a threat to regional order and national security).

U.S. policy toward Somalia has been a series of examples of shortsightedness. Everyone knows the story of our feckless attempt at humanitarian relief in 1992 to 1993, the mission creep that led us into a miniwar against a Somali warlord, and the humiliation of the Battle of Mogadishu. But the real error of the 1992-93 intervention was in trying to pass out food in a country with no government. The most effective kind of humanitarian relief would have been a fully armed state-building operation, as in Bosnia. Barring that, the United States should have left well enough alone.

The United States gave up and passed the baton to the United Nations for a decade afterwards. While the U.N. understood the need to establish a new and legitimate government, it was no more effective because it lacked the hard power to enforce a solution. Nothing improved.

Things came to a head when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a jihadist group, was on the brink of seizing control of the entire country in 2006. Ethiopia, allegedly with U.S. help, invaded, toppled the ICU, and made way for a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to take control. The next year, the U.N. authorized an African Union peacekeeping force to protect the TFG. But the TFG lacked the clout, and the AU lacked the will, to defeat the ICU altogether or forcibly create a new state.

The ICU rebranded itself al-Shabab (and formally swore allegiance to al Qaeda in 2012) and had been a plague on Somalia and the region for years.

The United States has allegedly adopted a similar approach to al-Shabab as it has to many other jihadist groups: bomb and forget, including reported strikes in March 2008, May 2008, September 2009, April 2011, June 2011, and a steady drumbeat from fall 2011 onwards, followed by a long pause and the an apparently successful decapitation attack in September 2014.

To summarize, U.S. policy towards Somalia is to:

1.     Kill people it deems terrorists.

2.     Ignore the conditions of state failure that enable terrorists to live, plan, train, recruit, and operate with impunity.

This is sometimes the most appropriate policy. Fixing failed states is hard and expensive, and the United States should only try it in places most important to it. Somalia doesn’t make the cut. But this is the model the president held up as a success and an example he intends to follow in Iraq.

While it may be appropriate in some places, there are practical and moral problems if this is the policy we adopt everywhere. Just a month ago the president rightly said, "There is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq." The solution is the creation of a stable, legitimate, capable government capable of upholding order and commanding at least a minimum degree of loyalty from its citizens. The president’s policy contains no support for doing that. He gave lip service to Iraq’s factions coming together and seemed to think ousting Nouri al-Maliki would fix Iraq’s governance problems. If he really believed that, then the United States could open up the tap of its reconstruction and stabilization assistance again. The president said, "We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves," which is a convenient excuse for not providing more foreign aid to a country that palpably cannot rebuild itself. Rhetoric aside, actual U.S. policy is to leave Iraq in a state of permanent failure, like Somalia.

Which means Iraq will continue to be a safe haven and breeding ground for jihadists. This is both shortsighted and morally questionable. A more strategic approach would seek to close down the safe havens that enable jihadists to gather and train openly by fostering stable and legitimate governance. That also happens to be more ethically defensible. The effect of U.S. policy now is to keep some regions of the world in a permanent state of war and anarchy, places in which we continue to kill people with impunity, places in which there is no prospect for the growth of a stable or just order.

I know the objections — nation-building is too hard, too expensive, too culturally imperialistic, we can’t do it everywhere, etc. But just because we can’t do it everywhere doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it anywhere. Somalia is peripheral enough that we can afford to sideline it for now, keeping the jihadists at bay with the occasional strike from afar. But a place like Iraq or Afghanistan is more central to U.S. security concerns, and thus merits a large investment of U.S. resources and a more long-range strategy. Using Somalia as a template for Iraq is a terrible idea. The president is saying, in effect, "If you like Mogadishu, you’re going to love Baghdad." If Somalia is a success, I’d hate to see what failure looks like.

President Obama laid out a strategy for "degrading and destroying" the Islamic State (IS) on Wednesday night. He called for targeted airstrikes, training local security forces, and more intelligence. Interestingly, he said, "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years." The analogy with Somalia is troubling because it suggests the Obama administration is committed to endless military strikes with no political strategy.

Somalia has been without a government that is both internationally recognized and capable of enforcing its writ since 1991. In nearly a quarter-century of state failure, it has predictably become a safe haven for pirates, jihadists, drug smugglers, and arms traffickers (the textbook example of how state failure is a threat to regional order and national security).

U.S. policy toward Somalia has been a series of examples of shortsightedness. Everyone knows the story of our feckless attempt at humanitarian relief in 1992 to 1993, the mission creep that led us into a miniwar against a Somali warlord, and the humiliation of the Battle of Mogadishu. But the real error of the 1992-93 intervention was in trying to pass out food in a country with no government. The most effective kind of humanitarian relief would have been a fully armed state-building operation, as in Bosnia. Barring that, the United States should have left well enough alone.

The United States gave up and passed the baton to the United Nations for a decade afterwards. While the U.N. understood the need to establish a new and legitimate government, it was no more effective because it lacked the hard power to enforce a solution. Nothing improved.

Things came to a head when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a jihadist group, was on the brink of seizing control of the entire country in 2006. Ethiopia, allegedly with U.S. help, invaded, toppled the ICU, and made way for a Transitional Federal Government (TFG) to take control. The next year, the U.N. authorized an African Union peacekeeping force to protect the TFG. But the TFG lacked the clout, and the AU lacked the will, to defeat the ICU altogether or forcibly create a new state.

The ICU rebranded itself al-Shabab (and formally swore allegiance to al Qaeda in 2012) and had been a plague on Somalia and the region for years.

The United States has allegedly adopted a similar approach to al-Shabab as it has to many other jihadist groups: bomb and forget, including reported strikes in March 2008, May 2008, September 2009, April 2011, June 2011, and a steady drumbeat from fall 2011 onwards, followed by a long pause and the an apparently successful decapitation attack in September 2014.

To summarize, U.S. policy towards Somalia is to:

1.     Kill people it deems terrorists.

2.     Ignore the conditions of state failure that enable terrorists to live, plan, train, recruit, and operate with impunity.

This is sometimes the most appropriate policy. Fixing failed states is hard and expensive, and the United States should only try it in places most important to it. Somalia doesn’t make the cut. But this is the model the president held up as a success and an example he intends to follow in Iraq.

While it may be appropriate in some places, there are practical and moral problems if this is the policy we adopt everywhere. Just a month ago the president rightly said, "There is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq." The solution is the creation of a stable, legitimate, capable government capable of upholding order and commanding at least a minimum degree of loyalty from its citizens. The president’s policy contains no support for doing that. He gave lip service to Iraq’s factions coming together and seemed to think ousting Nouri al-Maliki would fix Iraq’s governance problems. If he really believed that, then the United States could open up the tap of its reconstruction and stabilization assistance again. The president said, "We cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves," which is a convenient excuse for not providing more foreign aid to a country that palpably cannot rebuild itself. Rhetoric aside, actual U.S. policy is to leave Iraq in a state of permanent failure, like Somalia.

Which means Iraq will continue to be a safe haven and breeding ground for jihadists. This is both shortsighted and morally questionable. A more strategic approach would seek to close down the safe havens that enable jihadists to gather and train openly by fostering stable and legitimate governance. That also happens to be more ethically defensible. The effect of U.S. policy now is to keep some regions of the world in a permanent state of war and anarchy, places in which we continue to kill people with impunity, places in which there is no prospect for the growth of a stable or just order.

I know the objections — nation-building is too hard, too expensive, too culturally imperialistic, we can’t do it everywhere, etc. But just because we can’t do it everywhere doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it anywhere. Somalia is peripheral enough that we can afford to sideline it for now, keeping the jihadists at bay with the occasional strike from afar. But a place like Iraq or Afghanistan is more central to U.S. security concerns, and thus merits a large investment of U.S. resources and a more long-range strategy. Using Somalia as a template for Iraq is a terrible idea. The president is saying, in effect, "If you like Mogadishu, you’re going to love Baghdad." If Somalia is a success, I’d hate to see what failure looks like.

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the U.S. National Security Council staff from 2007 through 2009. Twitter: @PaulDMiller2 ‏

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