This suggested that the Biden administration values democratic progress and that the return of military assistance was offered as a reward. In fact, the decision had already been made. The announcement’s timing was for show. President Donald Trump’s troop withdrawal in early 2020 was as well, intended to satisfy a campaign promise to bring our troops home. Instead, they had merely moved to neighboring countries and continued to commute to Somalia for operations and training.
America’s Somalia policy is obsessed with containing al-Shabab, the local terrorist insurgency, in the name of security. But this obsession is based on an inflated sense of the risk that al-Shabab poses to the United States and undermines our broader national security interests in the country.
I saw this firsthand as a U.S. diplomat serving in the U.S. Mission to Somalia during the last electoral process in 2017. Security, security and security were our top priorities there, and the international and donor community only turned its collective attention to the electoral process months before it was due to take place.
After six months of haggling, on a hot day in February 2017 in a crowded hangar in the Mogadishu International Airport compound, 329 parliamentarians chose the president. They had been selected themselves through dubious processes. Sweating under a headscarf, I watched as votes were hand counted on stage one by one. We knew the process was corrupt at every level, with cash handouts in the millions barely disguised even in the hangar that day, but it still felt like progress. We declared victory for democracy when the corrupt incumbent lost to a relatively untainted underdog.
Those of us concerned with Somalia’s democratic progress — both Somali and foreign representatives and advocates — urged donor countries to turn their attention immediately to the constitutional, institutional and legislative work needed to ensure a less corrupt and more democratic process the next time around. We knew this was a yearslong undertaking essential to addressing the country’s poor governance.
But our concerns were dismissed. Partners like the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries in the region promptly returned to focusing on security and counterterrorism almost exclusively, once again leaving to fester the drivers of that insecurity: lack of governance and corruption.
This year’s process was unsurprisingly familiar, with no progress made toward a more democratic and constitutional system after five years. The winner, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was familiar as well. The man who lost in 2017, after failing to deliver democracy, security or prosperity for his people while enriching himself and his allies, unseated the very man who had beaten him before.
To my surprise, former colleagues and friends in Mogadishu all agree that this was the best outcome possible after Hassan Sheikh’s successor turned out to be even worse than he was. And for all our focus on counterterrorism, at the expense of all other priorities, the security situation in Somalia has deteriorated, too.
This all tells me our investment isn’t paying off and begs the question of why we stay the course.
Our engagement with Somalia is reminiscent of Afghanistan, where we propped up a corrupt government in the name of democracy while our fixation on security failed to pay lasting dividends. We should take lessons from that experience now and either stop facilitating corruption by bolstering a bad government or stop our feigned commitment to democracy there and reassess our goals based on clear U.S. national security interests. After all, al-Shabab, the terrorist insurgency in Somalia, poses no direct threat to our homeland.
We would benefit more by investing in the long-term stability that comes from better governance and pursuing an inclusive, negotiated peace, rather than playing whack-a-mole with an insurgency on the government’s behalf.
After 20 years in Afghanistan, we conceded that turning a blind eye to corruption and dishonestly assessing progress and U.S. national security interests led to failure at great cost. Though the scale is far smaller, we’ve been on the ground in Somalia for 15 years already, and we similarly have little to show for it, in either improved security or governance.
Hassan Sheikh’s return to power is an opportunity to recalibrate our engagement. After Afghanistan, the Somali government knows now, too, that our military assistance will not continue indefinitely at any cost. We must be more conditional with our military support, using it as leverage to secure governance gains as well. After all, the security we seek will never be realized without functional governance at the helm.
Hassan Sheikh is a shrewd political actor, a survivor and a collaborator willing to cut deals with friend and foe alike when it serves his interest. He knows he needs U.S. military support to survive, given the dire security situation his government faces. It’s about time our government understood that.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on U.S. foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She was previously a U.S. diplomat and is author of “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.”