U.S. Bombs Somalia as Russia Bombs Ukraine

You do not, in fact, have to choose between American and Russian imperial aggressions. Better to bear witness to what is being done in your name.

U.S. Bombs Somalia as Russia Bombs Ukraine
Downtown Hargeisa in Somaliland, Somalia. Via Getty.

Edited by Sam Thielman

AS THE CRISIS IN UKRAINE tipped toward invasion—around the time Vladimir Putin reached for what Russian socialists Ilya Matveev and Ilya Budraitskis called "the unconcealed language of imperialism and colonialism" to justify his aggression—the United States, once again, bombed Somalia.

U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) launched the airstrike on Tuesday and announced it on Wednesday. Its press release said the strike targeted suspected al-Shabab fighters "after they attacked partner forces in a remote location near Duduble." It seems from the statement that U.S. air cover came to relieve partner troops under fire. But FOREVER WARS was not on the ground to see, and the journalism around the incident seems to recapitulate the press release. AFRICOM says that its initial assessment finds no civilians killed or injured, but that's what they typically say, so we'll see what emerges.

As best I can tell, this was the first U.S. airstrike—typically by drone—in Somalia in 2022. It's the fifth, again as best I can tell, of Joe Biden's presidency. (AFRICOM previously announced strikes on August 24, August 1, July 23 and July 20.) Before him, Donald Trump escalated the U.S. war in Somalia like no one else had, bombing the country more in the first two years of his presidency than Barack Obama had in eight, all the way up to January 19, 2021.

George W. Bush plunged the U.S. into conflict in Somalia in the first place in 2006; he backed the overthrow of Somalia's Islamic Courts Union. The war, and direct U.S. involvement in it, has waxed and waned since. There hasn't been an Islamic Courts Union in many years. Al-Shabab emerged in the wake of its ouster and became a rationale for war, typically waged by proxy, that has lasted for 15 years.

I hesitate to call Somalia a forgotten war. I write in REIGN OF TERROR that calling it forgotten implies its receiving public attention in the first place. Shortly before I wrote the book, I learned that the House Armed Services Committee had never issued any study of a war that was more than a decade old. There is neither expectation nor effort to articulate a strategy that can bring this circumstance to a conclusion. There isn't even pressure for the most basic oversight.

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With minimal spillage of U.S. blood, treasure and less media attention, a war like the one the U.S. wages in Somalia can persist as long as there is funding for it. In Washington, there is nothing more than a vacant shrug of the shoulders and a numb assumption that whatever it is the U.S. is doing must be the best of bad options. After 15 years, AFRICOM doesn't need to justify the operation beyond signing off with "violent extremist organizations like al-Shabab present long-term threats to the U.S. and regional interests."

I write all this not as facile whataboutism. I don't think there's any whataboutism necessary. You do not, in fact, have to choose between American and Russian imperialisms. The correct choice is to detest and resist both, with emphasis placed on resisting your own state's aggression, since you stand the greatest chance of success against something justified in your name. There's good stuff in Jacobin today about this.

Rather, I write this because as long as the United States does it, it will need to be written about, especially since there has never been anything more than sporadic U.S. reporting on the Somalia war. It needs to be written about now because it happened now.

As much as I am trying not to discourse about Ukraine, an inevitable effect of U.S. attention on Ukraine will be to obscure even further a war that the U.S. continues to wage practically as a matter of muscle memory. That is not to say or imply that coverage of Ukraine is inappropriate. There is a Russian assault on Ukraine and that must be covered. It is instead to say that the ongoing horrors of a protracted war matter as much as the fresh horrors of a new one.