As have presidents before him, President Joe Biden quietly expanded the United States’ endless wars once again this month. Despite having spent the entire presidential campaign — and the first year in office — claiming they wanted to end the United States’ forever wars, Team Biden appears to have reverted to following the lead of the US military in Somalia rather than crafting a policy capable of addressing the challenging realities on the ground in countries experiencing insurgencies.
In March 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US military wanted President Joe Biden to reverse President Donald Trump’s last-minute removal of US military trainers from Somalia right before he begrudgingly left office. Instead, without any public or congressional debate, Biden decided to redeploy US troops to Somalia to fight against al-Shabab, an armed non-state group that has launched attacks against civilians and government forces for decades — and against whom the United States has never officially declared war.
As has become the trend under this presidency, establishment forces in the administration appear to have once again given the president advice that is both politically and strategically short-sighted — and he’s far from the first.
DISASTROUS CHOICES IN SOMALIA
Like in Afghanistan, US policymakers have chosen militarism and perceived realpolitik in Somalia for the last four decades: President Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger cozied up to the genocidal Siad Barre regime, giving it millions in military and economic aid even as it razed entire cities and massacred the Isaaq clan in Somaliland. There was the infamous Black Hawk Down disaster during the Clinton administration; undeclared CIA drone strikes for the last two decades; the list goes on and on. Trump quickly ramped up US drone strikes and special forces operations in these areas, including Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Unfortunately, he also dramatically increased the number of people killed by these opaque, often undeclared operations.
All these episodes have one thing in common: US policymakers perceive Somalia as a battlefield rather than a country full of people caught in the cross-fire of armed men vying for power. So there was the hope of a new approach when Biden’s team reportedly halted US drone strikes in so-called “areas outside of active hostilities” — locations like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, where the United States is at war but won’t officially declare itself at war — as part of his administration’s proclaimed counterterrorism policy review. Moreover, the tenor of the administration’s engagement with people on the continent, and its prioritization of democracy and human rights in Africa in its Interim Strategic Guidance, made it seem like there might be a meaningful change to the decades’ over-securitizing US strategy.
Biden’s decision to send US troops back to Somalia officially dashed any hope that the administration’s counterterrorism review would end or, at minimum, significantly curtail its undeclared, often covert wars in Somalia and beyond. His decision to engage the US military in another nation-building project with zero congressional authorization is eerily similar to what was attempted in Afghanistan. Given that the past decades of US covert action and trying to build a national military have merely led to a strengthening of al-Shabaab (as has been the case in other countries, the US is conducting counterterrorism) rather than its weakening. It begs the question: what was actually “reviewed” by the administration over the last year?
In returning US troops to Somalia, Biden has kept the US stuck in a military-first mindset that focuses on eradicating or undermining the enemy on the battlefield while ignoring the root causes of insecurity and conflict.
Unfortunately, even before Biden decided to return US troops to Somalia, it had been clear for some time that the president was not going to change the course of the United States’ post-9/11 wars. Officials in the National Security Council told me last fall that the chaos of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan cooled any appetite for withdrawing US troops from other war zones. And while the administration never announced an official end to the counterterrorism review, its new counterterrorism czar — then at the Department of Homeland Security — debuted that the future of these wars was essentially no new strategy.
There’s little to no evidence that this administration has wrestled with the facts that the US government is fundamentally inept at training and professionalizing foreign militaries, the ineffectiveness of (let alone the racism inherent to) concepts like countering violent extremism (CVE), and that providing weak institutions with millions or billions in money for war incentivizes corruption and conflict. So instead, the prescription is more CVE, more rebranded counterinsurgency and drone wars, and more lawlessness to establish the rule of law. The main difference is merely the explicit focus on exporting the duty of carrying out these wars to foreign militaries.
All of this brings us back to the US military’s mission in Somalia to target top al-Shabab leaders to prevent the group from being able to launch transnational attacks. And the mission’s intention to create and train a professional and capable national Somali security force that can eliminate al-Shabaab and has legitimacy in the eyes of the Somali people. This recycling of past failed strategies once again misses why there is no US military solution in Somalia: a state’s legitimacy does not come from foreign military training, and it certainly won’t come from a security force trained by the very foreign military that continues to kill the very people Somali forces are supposed to protect. Except for demagogues and warlords, no one is protected by such international impunity.
In returning US troops to Somalia, Biden has kept the US stuck in a military-first mindset that focuses on eradicating or undermining the enemy on the battlefield — not addressing the root causes of insecurity and conflict. It is now up to Congress to check his decision — only Congress has the sole constitutional duty to declare war. But the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force application to Somalia is flimsy at best. The president’s deployment certainly meets the “introduction in hostilities” threshold of Section 8C of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, meaning that the deployment of US troops to an active war zone puts them at imminent risk of war, requiring Congress’ affirmative approval. But with Congress in a militaristic crouch on Ukraine, it’s unclear whether there is political will to invoke its war powers over renewed US war in Somalia.
Somalia is like so many secretive post-9/11 wars the United States is waging. Somalia doesn’t need more US troops. Instead, like so many other countries in conflict, Somalia needs investments in bottom-up approaches to peace that rely on local approaches to building community, connection, and trust fundamental to everyday people’s safety.
It requires the US government to stop the insanity of doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Otherwise, we can expect the same: more lives lost.
Kate Kizer is a progressive foreign policy writer, strategist, and columnist at Inkstick and a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for International Policy.