(CN) — The Somali government is entering the second phase of its offensive to defeat an al-Qaida affiliate in the country, prompting some to urge the U.S. and Western governments to plan nation-building initiatives or risk losing any potential for lasting stability.
The United States has a troubled history with Somalia, which has been plagued by instability for decades. The U.S. has primarily focused on counterterrorism efforts in the country against al-Shabab, an affiliate of al-Qaida that operates independently.
Ali Hersi, who works in Somalia with Saferworld to promote stability, said the U.S. has been an asset on the battlefield, but hasn’t put much support into building up infrastructure and civil society.
“This was a security arrangement that looked only at the American interests,” Hersi said in an interview in Washington on Wednesday. “It’s one thing to have a military presence, but also if you don’t support establishing a government, infrastructure, the needs of the community, then people feel like you are just there for your own interests.”
According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. provided more than $500 million in military aid to Somalia between 2010 and 2020. Much of that money has been to combat al-Shabab, which has been the biggest threat to stability over the past 20 years. The radical Islamic group took control of the capital, Mogadishu, around 2006 and wasn’t pushed out of the city until a joint Somali-Ethiopian offensive, with U.S. support, in 2011 and 2012.
About 450 U.S. troops are based in the country, providing support, training and drone strikes. The Pentagon did not return a request for more information about their exact role, but Hersi said it has been support, not direct combat.
Somalia President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud last year announced a “total war” on al-Shabab with the goal of eliminating the group from the country, while acknowledging peace will likely require negotiations.
Michael Woldemariam, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, said a chief objective of the offensive is to put the central government in a better bargaining position.
“I think there’s an understanding that, at the end of the day, there’s no purely military solution to the al-Shabab problem,” he said.
The offensive has been successful despite a United Nations embargo on weapons sales, with outside observers seeing it as one of the best recent potentials for stability in Somalia. It has also improved the country’s relations with its neighbors such as Kenya, which recently announced it would reopen its border, which had been fortified because of al-Shabab militants traveling into Kenya.
“I feel much more optimistic than I have before,” Hersi said. “There’s a sense that this is gradually getting behind us.”
State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel did not provide specifics when asked about the U.S.’s plan to support stability if al-Shabab is defeated.
“We remain committed to working with the people and Government of Somalia to improve the security condition, to respond to humanitarian needs [and] support economic growth,” he said at a briefing Wednesday. “A big piece of that is, of course, deepening and strengthening our security partnership to further degrade al-Shabab, but I don’t have anything to speculate or preview from here.”
Somalia has a long history of violence, but the current political situation traces back to the 1960s when Mohamed Siad Barre rose to power in a military coup shortly after the country gained independence from Great Britain. After losing a war to Ethiopia in 1978, Barre deployed special forces against dissidents in certain clans, which eventually sparked a multi-party civil war.
Woldemariam emphasized that Somalia is historically divided along clan lines that make it difficult to achieve national political cohesion.
Barre was deposed in 1991, but the different rebel groups did not coalesce in the ensuing power vacuum leading to further civil war. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in the fighting.
The United Nations deployed a security force, including U.S. troops, to the country in the 1990s to support humanitarian relief efforts. The U.S. intervention involved the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident, in which 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis were killed.
In the mid-2000s, the Transitional Federal Government became the internationally-backed central government. It was formally recognized by the U.S. in 2013 and American troops have been in and out of the country ever since. Former President Donald Trump pulled the military out of the country in 2021, but President Joe Biden redeployed troops in 2022.
Woldemariam said an important avenue for international diplomacy will be to support reconciliation and agreement between the varied political factions.
“That kind of political engagement needs to be sustained over the long term,” he said. “There needs to be sustained political support.”
If the ongoing offensive is successful, Hersi noted it will still take time to achieve a stable Somalia.
“There’s the need for patience,” he said. “You can’t have al-Shabab out today and stability tomorrow.”
While the recent push against al-Shabab is “promising,” Woldemariam said there’s still a long road to stability in the country. International interests are also dealing with the crisis in Sudan and other regions, which are taking some focus from the issues in Somalia.
“Somalia’s kind of a long-running problem that everyone is aware of,” Woldemariam said, “but I wouldn’t say there’s a tremendous amount of political urgency to stabilize the country.”
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