Last week, the United States announced it was returning 450 troops to Somalia, to target leaders of the radical Al Shabab organization, an affiliate of Al-Qaeda, and to help secure supply routes for humanitarian aid. This is the third time that US troops have been inserted into Somalia.
At the end of his term, President George HW Bush ordered the US Rangers to Mogadishu. Ten months later, nineteen American soldiers were killed fighting Al Shabab. Their bodies were mutilated and dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Six months later, President Clinton withdrew the US military. The phrase “No more Mogadishus” has become a shorthand within the Clinton administration to warn against the insertion of thinly and ill-supported US troops into conflict zones in Africa. In April 1994, this mindset was reflected in the decisions of Secretary of State Warren Christopher and US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright not to reinforce UN troops during the Rwandan genocide – a decision for which President Clinton later apologized.
In November 2016, President Obama authorized US troops to return to Somalia, as part of the global war against terrorist organizations. He sought permission to do so as part of the 2001 congressional vote in response to the September 11 attacks. Four years later, President Trump ordered those US troops home, believing they were unable to stabilize the Somali civil war that had raged since 1991.
Now they are coming back, for humanitarian and counter-terrorism purposes. Two explanations are missing for this decision. The first is the authority President Biden can assert for violating the War Powers Resolution, which requires Congress to authorize the insertion of U.S. armed forces into situations where “imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances”, or to withdraw them within 60 days. .
It is beyond credibility for President Biden to emulate President Obama’s approach in saying that this placement of US troops was in fact authorized 21 years ago by Congress following the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon.
Sixty days from now, July 15, President Biden will be breaking the law if our troops are still in Somalia.
The second missing explanation is how 450 American soldiers can have an effect in an overall plan to stabilize the region. Somalia has been at almost constant war for 45 of its 62 years of existence. After independence in 1960, Somalia quickly fell under the rule of a dictatorship. During the Cold War, Somalia was initially a client state of the USSR, providing the Soviets with port facilities and intelligence posts. It then allied with the United States, following Somalia’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1977 to annex the Ogaden region, heavily populated by ethnic Somalis.
The Soviets shifted their support for the communist dictatorship to Ethiopia. The United States has announced its support for Somalia. The war turned bad for Somalia and civil war ensued. Siad Barre, the Somali dictator, was overthrown in 1991. Just then, the Cold War ended and a proxy war between Ethiopia and Somalia no longer interested the United States.
A much deeper factor has long underlined the Somali situation: a commitment to reunite ethnic Somalis spread across former French, Italian and English colonies comprising Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia. The clan-based social structure of Somalis is another permanent feature, which makes it difficult to consolidate into a single effective government, unless it is a dictatorship.
Humanitarian aid has a role to play, and military forces must protect those who provide it.
The African Standby Force, created by the African Union after the Rwandan genocide, is a logical choice. The United States has provided transportation and communications assistance to troops from African nations performing this mission in the past. The insertion of non-African troops in an African civil war could be justified to prevent the repetition of a Rwandan type genocide; but the reinsertion of US troops into Somalia today is unlikely to produce a better result than our previous two incursions.
Tom Campbell is Professor of Law and Professor of Economics at Chapman University. He served five terms in the US Congress, where he was a member of the Africa Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee. He and his wife have taught as volunteers in Africa eight times and have visited more than twenty countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including Ethiopia and Somalia. He left the Republican Party in 2016 and is in the process of forming a new political party in California, the Common Sense Party.