Somalia: Blowback from Drone Strikes?

A lot of journalists and analysts have been abuzz over the recent drone strikes in Somalia – the New York Times headline, “US Expands Its Drone War Into Somalia,” is typical. I think the narrative of a “new” US offensive in Somalia misses at least two critical points.

First, I see the drone strikes not as something brand new, but as a continuation of earlier US actions in Somalia, such as a helicopter raid in September 2009 (in fairness to the NYT, their article points this out – my disagreement is with the broader framing expressed in headlines). The idea of using drones in Somalia, moreover, has been under consideration since at least March 2010. The vehicle may have changed, but the underlying US objective of assassinating key figures linked with the rebel movement al Shabab has not changed.

Second, even if the drone strikes do represent a serious change in US policy, there is nothing to say that Somalis – including Somalis who are not members of al Shabab – will not perceive the strikes as part of a larger, and unwelcome, pattern of foreign intervention. One Somali academic warns of a kind of blowback (h/t ZJ):

Dr. Omar Ahmed, an academic and Somali politician, told Somalia Report that airstrikes targeting al-Shabaab will only serve to increase the local support of the militants.

“There is no reason for the western countries to use airstrikes against al-Shabaab. It will only increase the generations supporting al-Shabaab,” he said. “For example, when the Americans killed Aden Eyrow, the capability of al-Shabaab was very low. From that day forward, the militia increased in size day-after-day. They recruited many youths, persuading them that infidels attacked their country and want to capture it.“

Whether one agrees with Dr. Ahmed or not, he points to long memories of outside intervention in Somalia, and also to the capacity of insurgent groups to use such intervention as a rallying cry. The Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from late 2006 to early 2009, after all, was a formative episode for al Shabab, and many see America’s hand behind the Ethiopian invasion. America also funds the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a force comprised of mainly Ugandan and Burundian peacekeepers. New interventions could trigger old resentments. Put even more simply, the drone strikes are a political as well as military act, and the political consequences are less predictable – and perhaps less favorable to US goals – than the military successes.

5 thoughts on “Somalia: Blowback from Drone Strikes?

  1. Present and future U.S. counter-terror operations are building on an established directive from the CIA and SOCOM. They’re simply being rebranded as “new” to capitalize on bin Laden’s raid and justify further escalation in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa. Your second point is more ambiguous, in that Somalis appear to have lost some of their hostility for the U.S. Washington does its main damage when politically interfering with the TFG, or in some cases not interfering enough. Civilian collateral can obviously blowback at any time, but the TFG is working in greater unison with the Pentagon than Saleh’s regime in Yemen. It remains to be seen what the local reaction would be to intense air operations, rather than the occasional pinpoint strike.

    • This is a fair point on the blowback. I may be overestimating the potential for that, or it may just be too soon to tell.

      • The problem is that we really are in unknown territory here. Even after close to ten years it’s hard (for a private citizen anyway) to say what impact this is having compared to what would happen if we didn’t use them.
        Of course we can’t very well stop now. Even if we halted all drone attacks other nations have seen the potential and relatively low costs of using them. Expect to see robots covering the skies in the next major war.

  2. I might also be underestimating Somali public opinion, but the current level of hostility against the U.S. appears lower than in the past. Somalis raised larger protests against Mohamed’s sacking than any recent foreign air-strike. I doubt the U.S. military will get many “do-overs” though. One errant strike and the historic animosity could bubble over.

  3. Pingback: US Drone Base in Ethiopia | Sahel Blog

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