President Barack Obama delivered his strategy to defeat ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State — choose the name you prefer — Wednesday night. The four-pronged strategy includes the use of American and allied air power; partnering with the Iraqis, the Kurds and the Free Syrian Army; counterterrorism operations; and humanitarian aid.
The Free Syrian Army alliance is problematic for two reasons. The FSA is weakened by years of war against both Syrian dictator Assad and against ISIS. It is also infiltrated with Islamists who are more sympathetic to radicals, and who may have sold American hostages James Foley and Steven Sotloff to ISIS. Patrick Poole reports that the FSA is working with ISIS.
The president’s speech included this strange passage. The president touted two nations in which he believes counterterrorism has worked against al Qaeda, and similar strategies can be deployed against IS.
“This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order,” the president said.
Successful? Al Qaeda-linked al-Shabab controls territory in Somalia and regularly launches attacks.
Counterterrorism in Somalia, essentially, is Whack-A-Mole. It works to some extent against terrorist leaders and cells, but IS is a very different prospect. It is a terrorist army numbering in the thousands, powered by stolen oil and robbed banks, mechanized by abandoned American tanks and HUMVEES, which is now building a capital city and gunning to bring about Armageddon. It has carved out a large territory and it is recruiting fighters from all over the world, including American and European citizens. Whack-A-Terrorist, as the Obama administration has done in Yemen, is unlikely to make much of an impact on IS.
The U.S. effort in Somalia is a particularly disturbing one for Obama to turn to. The United States has been involved in one way or another in Somalia since December of 1992.
President George H. W. Bush ordered U.S. forces into that chaotic failed east African territory as the main component of an international force dispatched to restore its government and provide food to the impoverished people there. The American military made shore along Somalia’s coast in a nighttime operation made bright by the glare of media TV lights. The cable news networks were tipped and were literally waiting onshore for the Americans to land and walk up the beach.
Not a shot was fired that night, and the Somalis initially greeted America as liberators. Operation RESTORE HOPE looked like it would be a peaceful humanitarian mission, and nothing more. The warlords who had replaced Somalia’s central dictatorship with feudal local power centers even cooperated with the international force and each other, at first. I was in the Air Force, stationed in Japan, when Somalia operations got into full swing. One of my co-workers volunteered and deployed there. Many of us, including myself, considered volunteering. I ended up staying put in Tokyo.
This is not ancient history. We all know what happened eventually. Mission creep. The hunt for Aidid. The Battle of Mogadishu. Black Hawk Down. American troops killed in a hyperviolent urban battle, and their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu for all the world to see.
Americans quickly lost interest in the Somalia mission and President Bill Clinton was not inclined to continue it. Our swift exit encouraged Obama bin Laden to see us as a paper tiger. He attacked us on our soil 13 years ago today.
Today, more than 20 years later after U.S. forces first landed there, Somalia is still a chaotic failed state. Attempts to establish an effective central government have failed. It is a terrorist playground, a hub of drug smuggling and the weapons trade.
Obama touted using local partners, in his speech last night. That has not worked in Somalia. Just this week, the African Union troops who have been operating there are accused of abusing and raping young girls and women in Somalia.
In the early 2000s, Somali pirates menaced shipping along the east African coast. The US Navy had to step up patrols and raids to reduce the piracy problem. Even an American ship was hijacked. You may have seen that movie too — Captain Phillips. Just a few days ago, Obama ordered a drone strike that killed a terrorist leader in Somalia. That’s fine, it’s always a good day when American forces eliminate terrorists. But it’s Whack-A-Mole. The terrorists will appoint a new leader. Somalia’s federal government and the African Union troops are incapable of eliminating al Shabab. Is this what Obama has in mind for Iraq?
Somalia cannot be touted as a counterterrorism success story in any real sense. It’s far more dangerous and chaotic right now than Iraq was when Obama became president. But Iraq is devolving in Somalia’s direction, and if the Islamic State is merely contained, as the president’s rhetoric suggests despite his claim to “degrade and destroy” it over time, the Iraq that Obama inherited from President George W. Bush will cease to exist. Like Somalia, its borders will still be drawn on maps. But like Somalia, those lines will mean very little. It will be a terrorist wonderland where Whack-A-Mole will eliminate the odd terrorist now and then, but the strategic situation metastasizes and worsens, as the threat to the region and the world builds and builds.