This paper summarizes the US mission in Somalia, analyses how it is being implemented, and assesses whether US policy in Somalia is working. It also outlines three scenarios for future US engagement.
The US has real but limited national security interests in stabilizing Somalia. Since 2006, Washington’s principal focus with regard to Somalia has been on reducing the threat posed by al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist insurgent group seeking to overthrow the federal government.
Successive US administrations have used military and political means to achieve this objective. Militarily, the US has provided training, equipment and funds to an African Union operation, lent bilateral support to Somalia’s neighbours, helped build elements of the reconstituted Somali National Army (SNA), and conducted military operations, most frequently in the form of airstrikes. Politically, Washington has tried to enable the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) to provide its own security, while implementing diplomatic, humanitarian and development efforts in parallel.
Most US resources have gone into its military efforts, but these have delivered only operational and tactical successes without altering the strategic terrain. The war against al-Shabaab has become a war of attrition. Effectively at a stalemate since at least 2016, neither side is likely to achieve a decisive military victory.
Instead of intensifying airstrikes or simply disengaging, the US will need to put its diplomatic weight into securing two linked negotiated settlements in Somalia. First, there needs to be a genuine political deal between the FGS and Somalia’s regional administrations, the Federal Member States (FMS), that would clarify the outstanding details of federal governance for Somalia and set out a new, comprehensive security strategy.
Concluding such a deal should be Washington’s top priority on Somalia. It will require considerably strengthened diplomatic efforts, including a greater willingness to place conditions on security force assistance, airstrikes and potential debt relief to the Somali government in order to generate political leverage. Even so, this deal will be extremely difficult to achieve: it will require the FGS to accept that it cannot expect to dominate the FMS; most domestic political efforts will focus instead on the run-up to the selection of Somalia’s next president (via legislative elections now most likely to be held in 2021); and continued support for the FGS by other external actors may reduce the potential impact of any US pressure and conditionality.
If a deal between the FGS and FMS can be achieved, the US will then need to support the idea of peace talks between the reconciled Somali authorities and al-Shabaab. In line with this, Washington will have to make clear that the strategic function of its airstrikes is to incentivize al-Shabaab’s leadership to negotiate an end to the civil war.