With the US government finally withdrawing troops from Afghanistan after a disastrous 20 year war, politicians and pundits are wasting no time spinning this as a failure of epic proportions for Joe Biden. Republicans have claimed the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan “heightened the threat of terrorism around the world,” while Democrats label it “a catastrophe.” With the US-backed government in Kabul in shambles and the Taliban in control, there are renewed fears that “Afghanistan could once again become a ‘hotbed’ for terrorism.”
Afghanistan’s collapsed State apparatus, coupled with a resurgence of Islamist militant groups, quickly generated comparisons to ongoing crises in Somalia. This comparison is worth considering, as the US has spent the prior two decades waging war in Somalia, under the mantle of ‘fighting terrorism.’ If a comparison is in order, we should consider how and why political violence emerged and spread, as a result of the US’ global war on terror.
Less than two months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush declared “We put the world’s financial institutions on notice: If you do business with terrorists, if you support them or sponsor them, you will not do business with the United States of America.” As a result, the US Department of Justice listed the Somali-operated al-barakaat money transfer system as an alleged ally of Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Bush claimed that, “by cutting off the terrorists’ money,” the US could win their ‘war against terrorism.’
Al-barakaat was a money transferring system that not only helped fund some of the largest infrastructure projects in Somalia, but was a vital lifeline for financial remittances from the Somali diaspora. This US-generated financial stranglehold devastated the Somali economy, and despite blusterous talk by Bush and the Department of Justice, years later the government timidly admitted that there were in fact no tangible connections between al-barakaat and al-Qaeda.
As I have documented elsewhere, ‘terrorist’ political violence in Somalia was nearly non-existent prior to 2006. Around the year 2000 a group known as the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) emerged. The UIC spread across lower Somalia and was heterogeneous in their Islamic doctrinal practices, with Sufi to Salafist doctrines present in different locales. With some regional courts holding conservative interpretations of Islamic doctrine, this generated fears that the regional business interests of US, European, and Ethiopian allies might be threatened.
After the US failed to crush the UIC through a secretive backing of anti-UIC forces in mid-2006, they gave the green light for the Ethiopian military to invade and occupy Somalia by the year’s end. The outcome? A precipitous spike in violence and instability across Somalia and the widespread growth of the militant al-shabaab movement, which prior to invasion, “had been little more than a bit player” in the region.
As Peter Berger and Paul Cruickshank illustrated in their 2007 report, The Iraq Effect, the US war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) lead to a precipitous increase of cases of terrorist violence worldwide, and was a key motivation for many who joined militant groups hoping to oust the US from the region. Similarly, the alleged need to ‘stop terrorism’ in Somalia in the mid-2000s lead to a precipitous increase in terrorism in Somalia, and the surrounding regions. Once the spread of political violence becomes extensive, it often becomes a self-fulfilling justification for US government and allied forces to keep redeploying troops in the name of ‘fighting terrorism.’ Generally, this is accompanied with the propping up US-friendly regimes deemed illegitimate to large sectors of the indigenous populations. This includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and many other lesser-discussed regions of the US’ war on terror.
The US’ war in Somalia may possibly be related to the fact that there are ample natural resources in the region. Similarly, as soon as the US began withdrawing from Afghanistan there were immediate calls for exploring the “$1 trillion worth of minerals the world desperately needs”—allegedly for the goal of “tackling the climate crisis.” I leave it up to the reader to decide how admirable the race for resources in Afghanistan and Somalia are, and whether they will indeed be used to address the capitalism-induced global climate crisis.
The impact of the US war on terror is once again in the headlines, if only for a short while. The sudden “rediscovery” of vulnerable women and children in Afghanistan by politicians and media pundits serves as a simplistic obfuscation of the grim 20 year toll of the US-led war, which includes thousands of injured or killed women and children. It offers a rose-tinted vision of “pride in the high value Americans place on women’s rights,” with little reflection on the US-generated determinants of ongoing instability in the region.
As recently as August 29, 2021, a US “defensive strike” that allegedly targeted ISIS-K in Kabul ended up killing 10 members of one or two families, including seven children—some as young as two years old. Simultaneously, The New York Times reports “a recent flurry of strikes in Somalia.” There is a long history of secretive US strikes in Somalia, killing countless civilians, “with no justice or reparation for the victims of possible violations of international humanitarian law.”
The well-being all those in harm’s way in Afghanistan is indeed an important issue. There is amply documented evidence of anti-refugee, anti-Muslim action and discourse in the US, especially towards those coming from regions impacted by the US’ war on terror—like Somalia and Afghanistan. Recently, scholars with Brown University’s Costs of War project found that anywhere between 37 million to 58 million people have been displaces as a result of the US’ war on terror.
As several observers recently remarked, we have a moral obligation to allow refugees from Afghanistan into the US. For this reason, we must go beyond the narrow demand to only help allied collaborators in the region, and take in all those who seek shelter and assistance.
In summation, there is some analytical merit in comparing Somalia to Afghanistan, insofar as we are trying to locate the common—often US originated—drivers of instability in these regions. However, let’s not begin (or continue) treating Afghanistan the way we’ve been treating Somalia in terms of US politics and policy: with furtive deployment of US troops, under-the-radar drone strikes, and denial of accountability for policies that have destabilized the region. Instead, let’s forge a Left-universalist strategy, based on solidarity, mutual aid, and assistance for all those ravaged by capitalist-empire.
Together, we can collectively work towards shattering the logic of imperialist realism and creating a world-system for the many, not the few.
Jason Mueller is a Lecturer and Research Affiliate in the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine.
Image: Amber Clay from Pixabay