“The United States is no longer at war,” President Joe Biden proudly declared to the UN General Assembly at the end of September 2022. It seems as if US boots on the ground is the threshold for the United States to admit to being at war. An administration lawyer might agree, thanks to Harold Koh, who argued that the 2011 US-led NATO airstrikes in Libya did not require congressional approval because there were no US troops there.
However, the implications of this narrow view of warfare are dangerous, as it incentivizes Congress to ignore situations where US troops are not directly in the line of fire, such as US military deployments to assist a foreign military engaged in armed conflict. Such a limited conception of war also misconstrues how wars play out and the resulting solutions available today. The reality is that Ukraine’s large-scale conventional interstate conflict remains an anomaly. Armed conflict and mass violence in most states occur as part of an internal insurgency, civil war, or online disinformation. Yet, Democrats and Republicans continue to embrace drone strikes, punitive sanctions, and humanitarian assistance as the remedy du jour.
Somalia is a case study where more war without congressional authorization seems to be Biden’s prescription for US policy, particularly after the Somali government requested more US airstrikes to support its mobilization of clan-based militias against al-Shabab. With the US bombing Somalia just after the midterm election, reportedly killing 17 al-Shabab militants and no civilians, the US military appears to be acting as the airforce for a conglomeration of local security forces, giving it no command, control, or real influence over — but legal culpability for — these forces’ human rights violations. Yet again, the executive branch is repeating mistakes it just made in other theaters of war by putting its thumb on the scale of an internal conflict without any real public debate — in spite of the fact that even former Pentagon lawyers, like Sarah Harrison, have urged “a collective focus on reconciliation and a recognition by all actors that al-Shabab will not be defeated militarily.”
The response in Washington? Largely crickets — outside of a few human rights and good governance types who (thankfully!) tend to parse every word of Pentagon press releases. The silent acquiescence to yet another US president’s war of choice in Somalia reflects Washington’s ongoing prioritization of investing in foreign police states that do little to build inclusive peace.
REVERTING BACK TO ENDLESS WAR
The US military has been militarily involved in Somalia for over 30 years. From the US backing of the genocidal Siad Barre regime during President Ronald Reagan’s term to the CIA and Pentagon’s unaccountable drone wars terrorizing civilians for the last several decades, the United States has long viewed Somalia as a source of threats to be managed through hard security interventions and realpolitik. For just as long, Somalia has continued to be under an international arms embargo that the UN Security Council voted to extend this week — albeit an edited version — over the objections of the Somali central government that has continued to rely heavily on clanism rather than building a united Somali identity. While there have been various fits and starts of progress toward stability, nearly four decades of war have strengthened, not weakened, al-Shabab and other predatory, violent groups in the region.
The silent acquiescence to yet another US president’s war of choice in Somalia reflects Washington’s ongoing prioritization of investing in foreign police states that do little to build inclusive peace.
The Biden administration has primarily embraced more of the same in Somalia despite claims in the new National Security Strategy that nonmilitary approaches would be prioritized across the continent. After a much-lauded pause in drone strikes that many erroneously celebrated as evidence of Biden ending endless war, his administration released operational guidance on the use of force outside areas of declared armed conflict, like Somalia, to mitigate civilian harm. Rather than being reflective of an exhaustive review of the failings of the United States’ secret drone wars, Biden’s guidance merely represents a reinstatement of previous rules for undeclared warfare that Trump threw out.
In May 2022, the Biden administration reversed Trump’s lame-duck military withdrawal from Somalia, sending US troops back on a “nation-building mission.” Trump’s decision was obviously political, but Biden’s reversal is still a curious one, considering that just six months ago, the United States withdrew from Afghanistan. The controversial withdrawal was rooted in the president’s understanding that the US military cannot effectively build other nations at the barrel of a gun. In fact, it can exacerbate violence if US assistance makes it complicit in the abuses of a host government — no matter how welcoming the central government in power is.
Rather than sifting through the failures of remote warfare, the complex realities of why al-Shabab and other violent groups gain power, and its relationship to failed governance, corruption, climate change, and human rights abuses, the president and his advisors reverted back to endless war in Somalia — though this new iteration has fewer rules, less transparency than before and little regard for long-term outcomes. US policy in Somalia in 2022 is best described as a series of bullet-adorned bandaids over a gaping wound.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
Millions of Somalis — already caught between armed actors more interested in power than their safety — currently face famine from years of severe drought exacerbated by accelerating climate change and war that shows no sign of abating. And once again, it’s US military intervention, along with other international troops and humanitarian assistance, that is the proposed solution, rather than a comprehensive strategy to work internationally to address the long-term political and survival challenges.
Like many fragile and failed states, Somalia is an instance where the US government can be most constructive and helpful to the most vulnerable by focusing on galvanizing action to address the root drivers of harm in Somalia. To do so, there must first be a recognition — across both the US government and the international community — that foreign military intervention is unlikely to solve the local drivers of conflict in Somalia. The intermittent success of counterinsurgency operations to clear areas of al-Shabab has driven the group to revert to horrific guerilla tactics harming civilians the most. While these tactics could undermine popular support for the group, a central government that continues to be unable to provide access to basic services and necessities like water in areas it has liberated will ensure such groups’ endurance in the long run.
Ending insurgency often requires addressing uncomfortable political realities and implementing meaningful reform that redistributes power. Unresolved injustices and societal inequality breed intolerance, perceptions of government illegitimacy, and violence. When the government is unable to protect civilians from violence or provide basic services, people search for and create alternative sources of power to provide for these fundamental human needs. That’s survival, not allegiance to ideology. Time and again, no amount of military equipment, foreign troops, or political rhetoric about military progress on the ground will create peace until there are societal power structures that provide basic human needs and are viewed as responsive and legitimate by those they serve.
STOP THE INSANITY
When it comes to nonelectoral political violence, US foreign policy is the definition of insanity: it does the same thing over and over, hoping for a different and better result. From my experience up close and personal with US policymakers in Washington over the last decade, it is clear that people in power remain focused on better messaging, not better policy. That leads to infantile and often colonialistic conversations about other countries and what the United States should do, missing that other people around the world have agency and will continue to seek security for themselves and their loved ones no matter the situation they find themselves in. The only thing US policymakers can control is the US government’s response.
We know that police states don’t keep the majority of people safe; they are designed to uphold the dominant status quo — just look at the ongoing atrocities occurring in the United States, Myanmar, Israel, the Philippines, Belarus, Egypt, Syria, and China to name just a few. Investing in police states that ignore basic governance needs and human rights only foments more injustice, more inequality, more intolerance, and more violence. So long as the US government remains more interested in funding security states and less interested in grassroots-led, inclusive peacebuilding, life-shattering conflicts will rage on while climate change only doubles down on the harm caused.
Kate Kizer is a senior nonresident fellow for security at the Center for International Policy, and a columnist at Inkstick.