Kenya, the United States, and the Project of Endless War in Somalia

SOMALIA, Garsale: In a handout photograph dated 22 September and released by the African Union-United Nations Information Support Team 23 September, a Ugandan soldier of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) looks on as members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group Al Shabaab stand in line after more than 200 fighters gave themselves up to AMISOM forces of the in Garsale, approximately 10km from the town of Jowhar, 80km north of the capital Mogadishu. The militants disengaged following in-fighting between militants in the region in which 8 Al Shabaab were killed, including 2 senior commanders. The former fighters were peacefully taken into AMISOM's protection handing in over 80 weapons in the process, in a further indication that the once-feared militant group is now divided and being defeated across Somalia. Deputy Force Commander of AMISOM Operations, Brigadier Michael Ondoga said a number of militants have contacted the AU force indicating their wish to cease fighting and that they their safety is assured if they give themselves up peacefully to AMISOM forces. AU-UN IST PHOTO / ABUKAR ALBADRI.

With American-supplied aerial reconnaissance, satellite surveillance, and troop presence, Somalia has now been under military occupation for thirteen years. Samar Al-Bulushi analyses the involvement of regional bodies and states in the project of endless war in Somalia.

By Samar Al-Bulushi

On 5 January, the Somali militant group Al-Shabaab launched an attack on a military base in northeastern Kenya that houses Kenyan and American troops, and that serves as a launch pad for US drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen. Three Americans were killed when the Shabaab fighters fired a rocket-propelled grenade on a plane piloted by contractors from L3 Technologies, an American company hired by the Pentagon to carry out surveillance missions in Somalia; due to Kenyan government secrecy about the loss of its own troops in the war with Al-Shabaab, it remains unclear how many Kenyans lives were lost.

This is unprecedented: Al-Shabaab has never launched a large-scale assault on a military installation within Kenyan territory. While the group has targeted military sites within Somalia, most of its targets in Kenya have been on civilian spaces, with the 2013 attack on Nairobi’s Westgate Mall as the most notable. As analysts familiar with the region have observed, Al-Shabaab’s actions are a likely response to the United States’ rapidly expanding undeclared war in Somalia, where American drone strikes have killed between 900-1,000 Somalis in the past three years alone, and where the American troop presence now exceeds 500.

The Pentagon responded with a new round of drone strikes in Somalia (at least three in the month of January), and with the prompt deployment of additional troops to Kenya’s Manda Bay military base—a clear reminder that the US military establishment has not lost its appetite for endless war. While the New York Times reported in December that the US was likely to ‘draw down’ its military presence in Africa, the Times focused only on the military’s interests in West Africa. In doing so, they overlooked the strategic significance of the Horn, a site of growing competition between the US, China, and Russia, with Turkey and the Gulf states playing increasingly influential roles. While instability in Somalia served as a pretext for many of these states’ initial involvement in the region, the rapidly expanding archipelago of foreign military bases suggests that most of these actors have long-term, if not permanent, visions for securing their respective political and economic interests.

In my presentation to the Political Economy, Knowledge, Solidarity, Liberation: From Asia to Africa workshop in Tunis, I reflected on the significance of these developments and drew on my research in Kenya to analyze the imbrication of Global South states and regional bodies in the project of endless war in Somalia. Somalia has now been under military occupation for thirteen years. With American-supplied aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, Ethiopian troops invaded Somalia in December 2006.  At the time of the invasion, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) had presided over six months of relative stability in Somalia. Contrary to mainstream media coverage that claimed Al-Qaeda ties, the ICU was an indigenous response to CIA-backed warlords, whose drug and weapons-trafficking had subjected Somalis to years of violence and uncertainty.[1]  Its popularity grew not because of a unified Islamist ideology, but because of a shared desire to counteract the warlords. With the ICU driven into exile by the invasion, more militant factions emerged. As such, the invasion and subsequent occupation planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.[2]

The United Nations not only failed to publicly condemn Ethiopia’s invasion, but authorized an African Union-led ‘peacekeeping’ mission known as AMISOM. It is important to underscore here the ways in which liberal governing discourses of ‘peacekeeping,’ and the ‘rule of law’ function to mask and depoliticize the realities of imperialism and war.  While AMISOM’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counter-terror operations. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers progressively transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 as the architects of the intervention soon battled a problem of their own making.

AMISOM’s donors (including the US, EU, and other actors) have been able to offset the expense and public scrutiny of maintaining their own troops in Somalia by relying on private contractors and African forces. The employment of multiple, interlinked security regimes has enabled the US in particular to replace images of its own, less credible, military adventurism with seemingly benign actors that are focused on ‘state-building.’ Entities like Bancroft Global, Adam Smith International, Dyncorp, Pacific Architects and Engineers, Engility, and the Serendi Group have tactically positioned themselves for contracts focused on logistics, capacity building, and security sector reform.[3] Like the private contractors, troop contributing states (Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Djibouti, Burundi) have financial incentives to maintain instability in order to justify the continued need for foreign intervention:[4] AMISOM troops are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages in the name of fighting Al-Shabaab.[5]

Kenya is an important example of a ‘partner’ state that has now become imbricated in the project of endless war.[6] As a close ally of the US. in the so-called War on Terror, Kenya has been one of the largest recipients of US security assistance in sub-Saharan Africa. It temporarily closed its borders to civilians fleeing the violence that ensued with Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, and worked with US officials to arrest and interrogate over one hundred and fifty people who managed to cross over into Kenya, in some cases facilitating their rendition to detention sites in Mogadishu and Addis Ababa. Support from the US has been instrumental in emboldening the Kenyan military to engage in its own ‘war on terror’ at home and abroad. Within the country, the security apparatus has become notorious for the disappearances and extra-judicial killings of Kenyan Muslims who are deemed to be suspicious in the eyes of the state. In Somalia, Kenyan troops have been engaged in direct combat with Al-Shabaab since Kenya invaded the country in October 2011, without parliamentary approval.

AMISOM’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into its so-called peacekeeping mission was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining a military presence in Somalia. To this end, the Kenyan state has actively worked to cultivate an image of itself as a regional leader in multilateral peace and stabilization efforts.  Yet the 5 January attack on a military base that serves as host for US drone and surveillance operations is a crucial reminder of the Kenyan state’s simultaneous entanglement in an American-led project of intervention and endless war in Somalia.  Recognition of this reality is crucial for the broader effort to resist it.

Samar Al-Bulushi teaches at UCI Irvine, Department of Anthropology.  Her research is broadly concerned with militarism, policing, and the ‘War on Terror’ in East Africa. 

Featured Photograph: Ugandan soldier of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) with members of the Al Shabaab group (22 September 2012).


[1] Without explicitly naming the United States, the UN Monitoring Group for Somalia confirmed that a ‘clandestine third-country’ was responsible for violating the terms of the UN arms embargo at the time (Scahill 2013).

[2] For more see Jeremy Scahill (2013) and Mary Harper (2012).

[3] Abukar Arman uses the term predatory capitalism to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort in Somalia, as ‘capacity building’ contracts often serve as a cover for the negotiation of oil, gas, and other agreements, and for the illicit transfer of arms and other goods.

[4] Some troop contributing states have been accused of selling their arms on the black market, and of collaborating with Al-Shabaab in the illicit trade in sugar and charcoal.

[5] Paying the monthly allowances for AMISOM troops has become the EU’s single largest development project in Africa.

[6] For a nuanced discussion of Ethiopia’s role, see Sobukwe Odinga (2017) “We Recommend Compliance: Bargaining and Leverage in Ethiopia-US Intelligence Cooperation,” Review of African Political Economy 44:153, 432-448.


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