The complex US-led intervention in Somalia, a decade in the making, represents offshore balancing at its most potent and urgent. The Libyan rebellion was outside the United States’ core interests. For Washington, intervening in Libya was optional. But Somalia, a failed state since 1991 and an al-Qaeda safe haven, represents a direct threat to the United States, and indeed has inspired the first American suicide bombers.
If offshore balancing, with its emphasis on air and sea power and proxy armies, is to define the US strategic approach to Asia and the Pacific, it first must succeed in Somalia.
For advocates of the strategy, there are reasons for hope. US offshore balancing in Somalia came together gradually, almost by accident, as separate interventions chased the converging problems of famine, terrorism and piracy. Today, this increasingly unified US effort seems to finally be bearing fruit, as American-supported foreign armies rapidly gain ground against al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist fighters.
However, sceptics too might find ammunition in the United States’ Somalia strategy. For while current US efforts in Somalia have managed to avoid a major ground-force deployment – and indeed have been essentially bloodless for Washington – they have at the same time failed to bring a speedy end to the country’s crises. The recent territory gains are encouraging but hardly decisive – and certainly reversible.
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The ICU didn’t explicitly advocate terrorism, and there were probably only a handful of al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in Somalia at the time. But that nuance was lost on the George W. Bush Administration. Washington pledged support for the Ethiopian attack, including ‘intelligence sharing, arms aid and training,’ according to USA Today.
With this backing, plus air cover provided by US AC-130 gunships and carrier-based fighters and assistance on the ground by US Special Forces, the Ethiopian army launched a Blitzkrieg-style assault on Somalia in December 2006.
Ethiopian tanks quickly routed the ICU’s lightly armed fighters. ‘The Somalia job was fantastic,’ Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan told then-US Central Commander boss Gen. John Abizaid in 2007.
The Bush Administration agreed with that assessment, at least initially. And the proxy approach to African security challenges quickly became central to Washington’s policy for the continent. In 2007, the Pentagon formed a new regional command called ‘Africa Command’ to oversee operations in most of Africa.
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In Somalia, the Ethiopian invasion and subsequent two-year occupation only served to rally the country’s Islamic extremists. Al Shabab coalesced from the remains of the ICU’s armed wing and launched a bloody, and surprisingly popular, insurgency against the Ethiopians.
Also targeted: the UN- and US-sponsored Transition Federal Government, formed under the protection of the Ethiopians, plus the new African Union peacekeeping force composed mostly of Ugandan and Burundian troops and funded by the United Nations and Washington.
Al Shabab also strengthened ties with al-Qaeda, which had sent operatives to advise clan forces during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and, more than a decade later, still maintained a small presence in Somalia. The al-Qaeda-Al Shabab alliance helped Al Shabab pull off a twin suicide bombing in Kampala, Uganda, on July 11, 2010 that killed 74 people.
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US support for the peacekeepers and the TFG represents the proxy portion of Washington’s offshore balancing in Somalia. Naval patrols, Special Forces raids and strikes by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles round out the strategy. At first, however, the main air and sea initiatives weren’t directly tied to the proxy fight on the ground.
In parallel with its support for Ethiopia’s attack on Somalia, the Pentagon in 2006 was in the process of standing up an East African counter-terrorism complex anchored by secret bases reportedly in Ethiopia and Kenya. From there, US Special Forces and armed drones struck at terrorist targets in Somalia, occasionally in cooperation with naval forces.
In 2007, Special Operations Command aircraft launched at least two helicopter raids on al-Qaeda and Al Shabab operatives in Somalia. On no fewer than three occasions in 2007 and 2008, commandos spotted targets for US warships firing Tomahawk cruise missiles at Somali targets. Some of the same warships help make up Combined Task Force 150, a US-led international naval force assigned to intercept arms shipments bound for Al Shabab and al-Qaeda in Somalia.