Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The U.S. is committing itself to a long-term stabilization mission in a chronically unstable country. The mission involves training and equipping the local government forces to fight against jihadi insurgents and won’t end until those local forces are capable of fighting on their own. Unfortunately, recruitment is low and the training is slow going, in part because the local U.S.-backed government is weak and commands little public support. Under the pretext of fighting international terrorism, the U.S. is taking on a group that poses little direct threat to the United States, is being drawn into local conflicts unrelated to its ostensible mission, and risks creating more radicalization through civilian casualties.
It could be Iraq or Afghanistan (or substitute communist for jihadi and it could be any number of Cold War proxy conflicts), but in this case it’s Somalia.
Last week, President Donald Trump issued an executive order extending a 2010 declaration of national emergency related to the conflict in Somalia, reiterating that the U.S. remains “strongly committed to Somalia’s stabilization” and that the “situation with respect to Somalia continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
As I wrote in March, the U.S. military mission in Somalia has expanded dramatically since Trump took office and declared the Horn of Africa nation an “area of active hostilities.” This has included a sharp uptick in drone strikes and special forces raids against the militant group al-Shabaab. Until recently, the Pentagon had claimed, remarkably, that no civilians had been killed in these strikes. On April 5, shortly after the release of an Amnesty International report that investigated five of the dozens of strikes and found evidence of 14 civilian deaths, the military finally acknowledged having caused just two. There have also been reports that Somali officials have used the threat of al-Shabaab—which is nominally affiliated with al-Qaida—to draw U.S. firepower into local conflicts over land and clan rivalries.
The U.S. currently has about 500 to 600 military personnel in Somalia, and they may be there for a while. As CNN reports, the U.S. mission “hinges on US Special Operations Forces being able to train an elite Somali army unit capable of defeating al Qaeda-linked militants on the ground.” The hope is that this group, known as Danab, will one day be an elite fighting force of about 3,000 troops capable of operating throughout the country, but right now it’s only about 500. One Pentagon official told CNN that it may take “approximately seven years for the Somalis to absorb all of these forces.”
Nearly two decades into the war on terror, critics of U.S. military intervention are accustomed to treating missions like this with skepticism. But in this case, the bigger question is, why isn’t the president more skeptical?
Since taking office, Trump has repeatedly expressed a desire to reduce U.S. military commitments overseas and a frustration over what he sees as U.S. troops being asked to fight other countries’ wars for them. One wonders whether he even realizes he’s committing U.S. troops to a seven-year mission to prop up the government of Somalia at a time when the country’s own neighbors are desperate to pull their troops out of the conflict. (And extending an Obama administration executive order on top of that!)
There’s an inherent contradiction in Trump’s worldview between his isolationist instincts and his commitment to standing out of the military’s way and letting the generals do what they think necessary—unlike the Obama administration’s approach, which he believes was burdensome and legalistic. Left to its own devices, the Pentagon tends to want more troops, more resources, and expanded missions.
This dynamic was on view recently in Syria. After declaring victory over ISIS, Trump ordered a full withdrawal of U.S. troops in December. Trump’s advisers and congressional allies eventually talked him down to leaving a peacekeeping force of 200 or even 1,000 troops in the country to protect U.S. allies on the ground and prevent ISIS’s return. This will probably remain the status quo until the next time Trump gets frustrated and tweets about it
The fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia has gotten far less attention from media and lawmakers than the fight against ISIS in Syria, and perhaps consequently, Trump appears to have taken little notice of it. And so, the war continues to expand with vague goals, no clear path to victory, and little to no pushback in Washington.