Source Responsible Statecraft
WASHINGTON, U.S.--Instead of redeploying American military forces to Somalia in support of the Somali National Army’s war against al-Shabab, the Biden administration should rely on diplomacy to help resolve the conflict.
This may not be a message the administration wishes to hear, but locally-led diplomacy that includes al-Shabab, leaders of rival clans and sub-clans, and Gulf Arab countries, offers the best hope for achieving a measure of stability in a country that has been fractured by more than 30 years of warfare, lawlessness, and state failure.
To facilitate this, the Biden administration will need to roll back restrictions on engaging with al-Shabab, which has been listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization since 2008. And Biden’s State and Defense Departments will have to work with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar to push local political leaders to talk to one another and to al-Shabab.
Since 2007, Washington has focused on managing the conflict in Somalia by “mowing the grass,” a strategy adopted from Israel that is focused on debilitating al-Shabab’s military capacity with no ambition or prospect of achieving an ultimate resolution of the conflict. But this approach has never worked; it has only made Somalia more violent and unstable.
In the 20 years that followed the October 1993 Battle for Mogadishu, the United States kept out of direct conflict in Somalia. Instead, it supported various Mogadishu-based warlords and Ethiopian and African Union conflict stabilization efforts, primarily through AMISOM, the African Union Mission in Somalia.
In March 2017, President Trump expanded ground operations and loosened the rules of engagement for U.S. forces operating in Somalia — rules that were designed to protect civilians. As a result, the number of American airstrikes tripled over the next three years during which the U.S. military conducted 151 airstrikes and seven ground operations (compared to 58 airstrikes from 2015 to 2017). It also trained and supported an elite Somali military unit, the Danab (“Lightning”) Brigade.
But American military investments failed to produce results. As the U.S. military footprint in Somalia grew, so did violence. Data from ACLED (the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project) demonstrate that since 2007, violence throughout the country increased year after year. The number of battles and incidents of violence nearly doubled between January 2017 and December 2020, the period covering the most intense U.S. military activity in Somalia.
And, despite U.S. training and support, the Danab brigade has generally been unable to hold the towns it has cleared from al-Shabab forces. Worse, the unit has been credibly accused of killing civilians and making arbitrary arrests.
Before leaving office in January 2021, Trump withdrew U.S. forces from Somalia and instead had them “commute” to Somalia from bases in Kenya. In early 2022, however, al-Shabab ramped up attacks throughout the country with the goal of undermining the presidential election.
Al-Shabab was born in 2007. It grew out of the collapse of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a group that emerged from the Somali civil war in control of large swaths of southern Somalia between 2004 and 2006.
The organization’s diverse membership is not a new phenomenon. For decades, national rebel groups in Somalia have formed through inclusive elite bargains, collaboration, and coalition-building between militant groups, clans, the business sector, and elements of the national government.
In interviews I conducted with security experts in Mogadishu in 2017, participants told me that many militants in Somalia were nationalists above all, determined to fight foreign intervention in their country. This buttresses a growing body of research indicating that al-Shabab shifted its focus away from international terrorism towards local issues.
Despite its record of brutality, al-Shabab, locally, has proven adept at providing food aid during drought, administering justice and resolving local disputes, criticizing Mogadishu government’s governance record, and providing public safety.
Interviews with mid-ranking al-Shabab leaders reveal that their members are open to dialogue with the Mogadishu government. Its conditions for negotiations include the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Somalia, amnesty for group members, adopting Sharia law, and creating a new inclusive government consisting of all Somali political actors.
While several of al-Shabab’s conditions for peace negotiations are nonstarters, members’ openness to dialogue on forming a new and inclusive government is a valuable launching point.
For peace talks to begin, Washington will have to reconsider its role in the conflict. At a minimum, it will need to remove al-Shabab from its terrorism list and pull back its military forces. The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia and other foreign forces will have to follow suit. Washington will likely have to deemphasize its role in peacebuilding as well. According to al-Shabab members, Qatar and Saudi Arabia could serve as peace talk facilitators.
Mowing the grass in Somalia has made the country more violent and unstable. Instead of trying to contain or eliminate al-Shabab with military might, Washington should rely on inclusive diplomacy to resolve the conflict.