by Michael Shank
This piece was originally published in Newsweek.
Blowback is already happening in response to President Donald Trump’s foreign policy.
This week’s car bombing and siege at a restaurant in Mogadishu, Somalia, which killed 31 people and resulted in dozens of hostages, is an apparent reaction to Trump’s airstrikes over the weekend, which killed eight Somalis.
In an unmitigated effort to ramp up hard power, Trump is now making the same counter-terrorism mistakes in the Horn of Africa that once plagued President Barack Obama’s foreign policy in this region. Meanwhile, the shelling of Somalia isn’t making this impoverished country, or America, any more secure.
Trump’s White House, like Obama’s, mistakenly thinks that airstrikes, carried by Djibouti-launched reaper drones, deploying hellfire missiles and costing U.S. taxpayers millions of dollars, will quell violence among a population that is overwhelmingly poor.
This is wrong-headed thinking. Million-dollar missile strikes will do nothing to address the underlying insecurity of the over 70 percent of the Somali population living on less than $2 per day.
Equally egregious: the soldiers tasked with protecting the population are only getting paid on average $100 a month, or just over $3 per day, and went on strike recently to demand higher wages. The U.S. could easily meet this need and boost morale immediately.
Not only are military means largely ineffective in undermining or ending terrorist groups. Most terrorist groups, exhibiting characteristics akin to Somalia’s Al Shabaab, end either through a political process or through better policing. An overwhelming 83 percent of terrorist groups end this way.
Those findings are based on the work of the think-tank Rand Corporation, a close ally of the Pentagon. And yet the Trump administration seems clearly unwilling or uninterested in investing the necessary resources to build Somalia’s political and policing apparatus, even though they’d cost less than drones and hellfire missiles.
Instead of pursuing political processes, police capacity building or poverty alleviation, Trump’s Pentagon appears to be doubling down on drones and hellfire missiles.
After loosening the counter-terrorism rules in Somalia earlier this year, which allows U.S. forces to strike without regard to civilian casualties, this month’s strike will likely be the first of many forays into an escalated war on Somalia. Going forward, Somalis should expect U.S. airstrikes, and the reactionary violence they instigate, to increase dramatically.
Sadly, the population is no stranger to U.S. strikes. Trump’s tactics follow a legacy of dozens of airstrikes by the past two administrations, all of which have not left Somalia measurably safer or more secure.
If the Trump administration is serious about security in Somalia, there are three fronts his Pentagon should consider.
First, only Somali security forces can defeat Al Shabaab. Outside intervention is only making it worse. Any American attempt at defeating Al Shabaab that does not include providing resources to Somali soldiers will certainly fail.
The Somali army is badly equipped and has none of the advanced weaponry of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) or other forces on the ground, leading to a lack of morale for the thousands of poorly paid Somalis in the army (thus the strike).
Outside governments, including the U.S., are dumping massive amounts of money and munitions into AMISOM and private military contractors, while Somali soldiers and citizens are often treated as expendable. The unlivable wages for Somali soldiers and Trump’s relaxation of war rules intended to protect Somali civilians are excellent examples of perceived dispensability.
This treatment must change. Outside interventionism hasn’t worked in quelling Al Shabaab’s insurgency nor will it work until local actors are given the necessary tools.
Second, the American military presence is aiding and abetting Al Shabaab. At minimum, overt military action by the U.S., such as drone strikes, is strengthening Al Shabaab’s case as an anti-Western force.
America has often appeared as the imperialist force in the Horn and Somalis are tired of outside meddlers, whether American, Ethiopian or Kenyan, which makes Al Shabaab’s anti-Western rallying cry even more compelling.
Worse, when those westerners are causing collateral damage, i.e. the killing of Somali civilians by U.S. or allied forces (e.g. AMISOM), this also emboldens Al Shabaab. This must stop.
If America keeps acting extra-judicially, outside the rules of war, putting Somali civilians in harm’s way, this will only add fuel to Al Shabaab’s recruiting fire.
Third, the answer to long-term security in Somalia won’t be found in a more securitized or militarized responses. Even focusing on the Somali army alone will not end Al Shabaab. There is a need to address the political and social grievances (and circumstances) of those who have joined the insurgency.
Remember, these young men are often recruited for nothing more than a cell phone and $50 and should be employed in legitimate, not illicit, job sectors aimed at rebuilding not destroying Somalia.
America’s multi-million-dollar air war on Somalia should be converted into a fund that reintegrates these young men back into society. The security return on investment will be measurably greater.
Before another few dozen Defense Department drones further destabilize Somalia, with careless disregard for civilian casualty, it’s time for the Pentagon and the president directing it, to press pause on a policy that clearly isn’t producing peace in the Horn of Africa. Somalia has had enough.
They’re tired of being America’s punching bag any time it wants to look tough on terrorism. If we care about the making Somalia safer, it’s going to require a long-game where million-dollar hellfire missiles are exchanged for million-man employment strategies.
Give these guys something to live, not die, for. That’s how you make Somalia great again.