Last week’s U.S. drone strike in southern Somalia killed al Shabaab leaders Ismail Jabhad and Ismail Dhere. That’s according to both Somali intelligence and Kenyan officials, who offered incomplete and conflicting details on what appeared to be a larger strike against al Shabaab fighters near Bardere, along with a second US drone strike on al Shabaab in northern Kenya.
The one thing they were sure about – despite the secretive nature of US military operations in Somalia – is that a US drone carried out the strike in Somalia for at least the third time this year, one of dozens of US drone strikes on Somalia conservatively dating back to 2011. As US intervention continues to evolve and expand in the Horn of Africa, many of these missions have been confirmed in recent years by US military and intelligence officials, and by their diplomatic counterparts who are increasingly willing to concede there are American boots on the ground. As a token of the importance the US ascribes to tackling terrorism in Africa, President Obama will visit Kenya and Ethiopia later in July.
What is becoming less clear is how effective any US efforts are in securing a stable Somalia.
The latest strike comes just two weeks after a Foreign Policy magazine investigation revealed a US base in the southern Somalian port of Kismayo, as well as in Baledogle, operated by JSOC special operations personnel in support of the Somali military and African Union forces. Prior to the FP report, US drone strikes in Somalia were said to originate in neighboring Djibouti, one of several bases in Africa with a strategic eye on Somalia, including Ethiopia and the Seychelles.
The drones are, of course, just one strategy in American-led counterterrorism efforts. The CIA presence in Mogadishu, suspected for years, was confirmed by Somali officials in a December 2014 account in The Nation. Somalis also confirmed that US military intelligence personnel engage in Mogadishu counterterrorism efforts, but are unclear on exactly who is interrogating.
“We don’t know,” a senior Somali official told author Jeremy Scahill. “They don’t tell us.”
Strategic self-interest that supports greed and corruption
His remark illustrates what’s so starkly wrong with the unilateral arrogance of a US stance towards Africa identified by a history of self-interest, characteristically focused on securing resources and access to markets, cloaked in a humanitarianism that harms those they help.
The international community may reasonably agree that the al-Qaeda linked al Shabaab – and their role in Somalia’s long, failed-state tragedy – need to be eliminated. Harder to fathom is why Washington would again choose the proxy-war strategies of the Cold War era in its tactical and financial backing of African military operations, or align itself with corrupt and dictatorial heads of state unfit to govern in a prosperous future, or to even begin by rebuilding the past.
Before 2012, Somalia was led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, the internationally recognized president who was a former leader of the Islamic Courts Union. Sharif was part of this Islamic movement that just a decade ago defeated the CIA-backed warlords of Mogadishu, themselves replaced in 2007 by a U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion. Scahill describes the ICU as “a stabilizing, albeit ruthless force” in the eyes of many Somalis. That might also be said of the U.S.S.R.-aligned military regime of Siad Barre, whose 1991 departure left the power vacuum in Somalia that led to its destruction – in what seems the inevitable outcome in Somalia, or Libya or Iraq or wherever western intervention coupled with support for an orchestrated or co-opted revolution backfires next.
Barre also left behind the basement prison the CIA is using in Mogadishu – and the same Cold War proxy model that continues to drive the diplomacy and the dollars in US policy in Africa.
Today, that plays out in the competition over African resources with China seeking to meet its increasing demands for energy and badly needed economic growth with emerging markets.
Africa, China and the West: The case of Djibouti
For more than a decade, Chinese investment across the continent hasn’t escaped noticed in the west – and that’s true of neighboring Djibouti, where nearly 4,000 US military personnel are stationed but the government has also signed a port access agreement with the Chinese Navy.
Anywhere else, perhaps, and the welfare of Djibouti wouldn’t matter to either China or the United States. The nation is led by yet another U.S.-backed African strongman, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who just collected a 20-year commitment for the United States at Camp Lemonnier at a cool $70 million per year – even as the safety of US personnel stationed there, but despised by the locals, remains at risk. But its strategic location and port are critical to US interests, so the human rights abuses and widespread poverty under Guelleh are met with official silence.
The Pentagon’s experience with Djibouti, with al Shabaab, with Libya or Angola or Mali, reflects what University of California historian Mark Levine calls the “old wounds and deep scars” of US intervention policy in Africa, in which “even the most well-meaning foreign attempts to help (African nations and people) are subverted by greed, corruption, violence and imperial agendas.” Across the region, Africans are creating markets and economic growth outside of the control of corrupt governments and private elites – but that’s exactly whose power is strengthened by US military and security policies, Levine explains. President Obama’s upcoming Africa tour is just one more piece in a long puzzle of misguided American involvement in the affairs of the continent.
That’s what al Shabaab in Somalia, and other extremists, ultimately derive from American and, increasingly, Chinese interventions that prop up corrupt African regimes, compromise the lives of their citizens as well as Africans, and diminish their prestige and credibility within the global community. You’d think Washington might have learned by now.
David Kowalski is based in Brussels and is a former European civil servant now working as an independent policy analyst.