New Report: Ending a Failed U.S. Military Intervention in Somalia


CONTACT: Jessica Rosenblum, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, 202.800.4662/ [email protected]

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. military intervention in Somalia fails to advance U.S. interests while bringing significant costs for both Somalis and for the American people, according to a new report from the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

The paper — “Ending the self-fulfilling counterterrorism prophecy: Aligning our intervention with our interests in Somalia” — calls for a responsible drawdown of our military engagement and a greater emphasis on diplomacy and development to bolster political stability in Somalia. Recognizing that U.S. intervention beginning in the mid-2000s and escalated by the past two presidents has propped up an ineffective federal government while failing to significantly weaken the militant group al-Shabaab, this paper proposes a civilian-led strategy that brings a greater chance of success without the costs and risks associated with military action.

Authored by Elizabeth Shackelford, a Quincy Institute non-resident fellow and a former State Department diplomat who served in Somalia, the report brings fresh thinking and critical analysis to a “little war” that has persisted and expanded for over a decade with little scrutiny from Congress or the American public.

“While our military intervention aims to support progress toward a functioning democracy, it has instead eclipsed the diplomatic and development efforts that might have facilitated those ends,” Shackelford said, “A policy centered on droning al–Shabaab into submission also fails to account for the fact that the group is motivated by opposition to foreign invasion and the poor governance that foreign forces continue to prop up. Unless the objective is to play whack-a-mole in Somalia forever, America’s military-led policy in Somalia has failed.”

The Trump administration in particular has scaled up U.S. intervention in Somalia, quadrupling the number of drone strikes in the country in just four years. This approach has greatly increased risks of civilian deaths with minimal returns for U.S. national security. Despite this, when in late 2019 the Pentagon began to question this intervention and others like it in Africa, a bipartisan assortment of lawmakers came forward to defend our continued military engagement. 

Shackelford’s papers stresses that Congress should welcome the end of these interventions rather than oppose it, and demand far more stringent oversight over counterterrorism missions that are ongoing.

In addition to this, the report recommends that the U.S.:

• End the military intervention as responsibly as possible, over a period of approximately five years, and shift the focus of engagement to encouraging better governance.

• Prioritize resolution of ongoing tensions and conflict between the central government and the administrations of the five Federal Member States, through intensive diplomacy, by pursuing milestones and metrics for progress toward a more stable state, and by including improved service delivery, inclusion, and development goals.

• Empower and fund diplomacy adequately to meet the challenge.

• Prior to ending the military intervention, leverage targeted military assistance to promote and incentivize progress on these political and governance priorities.

• Dramatically increase congressional oversight of U.S. counterterrorism strategy — including deployments of Special Operations Forces, foreign military training, and drone strikes.

U.S. national interests in Somalia — and the threat to the United States posed by Al-Shabaab — are limited, and U.S. policy should align with this reality. While a civilian-led strategy focused on diplomacy and development may not succeed in bringing forth a viable Somalia government or creating political stability in the country, it is vastly preferable to the military-first strategy that has already failed to do so, causing significant harm to Somali civilians and putting American personnel at risk in the process.