On Wednesday, the United States took the most aggressive military action in Somalia since the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.
Three months ago, two foreign aid workers were kidnapped by a band of Somali criminals. After failed ransom negotiations and as one of the American hostages, Jessica Buchanan, was suffering deteriorating health conditions, President Obama on January 23 authorized a daring rescue mission. It was carried out with brilliant efficiency by Navy SEAL Team Six. In the carefully orchestrated operation, the SEALs safely whisked Buchanan and her Danish colleague Poul Thisted away—but not before nine of their Somali captors fell in a hail of well-directed firepower.
While SEAL Team Six leaves the American public awestruck with its bold and professional capabilities, its mission also spotlights a dangerous part of the world that has for too long been marginal to the international community and U.S. public. After two decades of chaos, Somalia appears to be little closer to responsible and democratic governance than it was when its last dictator, General Siyad Barre, fled Mogadishu.
Following the regime’s collapse in 1991, Somalia descended into a Hobbesian free-for-all as rival warlords battled for control. The lack of a credible central authority created an enormous security vacuum that allowed Somalia to become a haven for Islamist terrorism and piracy. Today, Somalia’s governing authority, known as the Transitional Federal Government, wields little influence outside Mogadishu. Though recognized by the international community, it is riddled with corruption and cronyism and may well be a barrier to Somalia’s development.
Despite 151 people currently being held by Somali pirates, radicalized Somali-Americans joining the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist organization al-Shabab, and an ongoing humanitarian crisis, Somalia is not a key U.S. foreign policy priority. As a foreign policy problem, it did not figure in President Obama’s State of the Union address.
In the aftermath of the daring rescue, the question remains: What is the Obama Administration’s plan for Somalia? A plan requires U.S. leadership, resources, and diplomacy. It requires cooperation with partners in the region and elsewhere. As regional military forces increase their support for the African Union Mission in Somalia to combat al-Shabab, more should be done to address the country’s failed system of governance.
President Obama has seized on the professionalism and the bravery of U.S. troops as a personal triumph of leadership. It makes us all feel good. But without a strategy or an effective plan for building a stable Somalia, the White House will likely see the pattern of attack and rescue followed by withdrawal occurring with distressing frequency. A hostage rescue makes us proud. A stable Somalia will make us more secure.