A soldier from the Kenyan Contingent of the African Union Mission in Somalia looks at a vehicle destroyed by Kenyan Air Force missile strikes within Al Shabaab-controlled territory
On September 1st, a spokesperson for the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab announced the deaths of “scores” of African Union troops following an organized assault on the city of Janaale — the latest incident in a long series of terrorist attacks that have destabilized the Greater Horn of Africa.
A peninsular region home to Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda, the Greater Horn offers immense strategic value thanks to its proximity to vital sea lanes and to conflict regions deep in the African heartland. However, the Horn cannot be evaluated on present-day value alone due to its long and violent history of conflict and bloodshed. Not only is it home to several previously failed states such as Ethiopia and Somalia, but it has also hosted over a century of political and religious wars that have caused an enormous death toll and some of the worst human rights abuses in recent memory. Without a doubt, the Greater Horn of Africa poses a major foreign policy and humanitarian concern for some of the world’s leading powers.
Currently, the United States maintains a ground presence in the Horn of Africa in the form of an umbrella command named the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), which controls a permanent base in Djibouti and several non-permanent camps throughout the region. Commanding around 1,400 military personnel, the CJTF-HOA functions mainly to facilitate arms sales and provide counterterrorism training for regional governments.
With a revived Al-Shabaab threat and further conflict in the region looming on the horizon, the United States needs to reevaluate its military strategy in the Greater Horn of Africa. In particular, the U.S. must decide whether to increase, maintain, or reduce arms sales and counterterrorism training.
Proponents for increased or maintained military presence in the Greater Horn of Africa argue that a withdrawal cedes prime real estate for power projection and hegemonic purposes, both of which are vital for the security of not only the United States but also the globe. While hegemonic theory and real world examples such as the U.S. naval presence in the South and East China Seas seem to validate this argument, a specific examination of the Greater Horn proves otherwise.
A good place to start is with the creation of threats such as Al-Shabaab. While it may seem that arms sales and counterterrorism training can help construct an effective defense, they instead result in even more terrorism and instability — a phenomenon known as blowback. Blowback has been widespread across the Horn with notable examples such as the Ethiopia-Eritrea war of 1998-2000, the ongoing Sudan-South Sudan war, and the overthrow of the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia in 2006, which ultimately caused Al-Shabaab’s rise to power. For each of these cases, soldiers fighting on one or both sides received American weapons and training to advance the conflict, implicating the U.S. by association, and making it a target for reprisals by extremist groups. Therefore, the response to Al-Shabaab should be a reduction, rather than an escalation, of regional military presence in order to minimize blowback.
Instead of judging U.S. military policy solely on the effects of its power projection and hegemonic uses, it is also important to analyze the means — that is, the provision of arms and counterterrorism training — upon which the ends are achieved. Since the adoption of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “hearts and minds” doctrine during the Vietnam War, the U.S. military’s attempts to win over governments in peripheral regions with military advising and arms assistance have all resulted in negative — and unforeseen — side effects. One notable example is the widespread killing and rape of civilians by South Vietnamese soldiers and their American advisors in the early stages of the Vietnam War. Similarly, Kenyan security forces in the present day have conducted extrajudicial killings and rape against residents of border regions, while government soldiers in Ethiopia have turned their (American-backed) weapons against their own people. Historical and empirical studies find that American arms and training programs lead to significant civilian oppression, suffering, and death — morally appalling means which indicate a serious policy failure, no matter the intended outcome.
Lastly, U.S. military policy in the Greater Horn reflects the enduring legacy of neocolonialism, which is generally defined as the use of economic, political, or cultural pressures to control or influence other countries toward one’s own objectives. Through the continued funneling of arms and use of training programs, the United States has given itself significant political leverage over the governments in the Horn, redefining the culture of the region into one of conflict and securitization thanks to the ongoing threat of terrorism and the ready accessibility of weaponry. Governments in the Horn now feel an obligation to conform and even perpetuate this culture at the expense of their own people’s interests. Why else would governments continue to sign security agreements and prioritize defense spending over public health and education? At some point, these governments become unresponsive to their people’s needs, fomenting further violence and instability.
Faced with the precarious situation in the Greater Horn of Africa, the United States must act urgently to reduce its arms sales and counterterrorism training. Otherwise, there is little hope of stopping the vicious cycle of securitization and dependence that has so far failed to bring peace and stability to the region.
Tony Zhou is a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Economics and Philosophy and minoring in International Relations.