Friday’s news that President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all the 700 U.S. troops based in Somalia has gotten very little attention, in part because few people even knew there was a military operation in Somalia in the first place. This is unfortunate, as the Somalia operation is a textbook example of the dilemma created by the ever-expanding U.S. war on terrorism.
The announcement comes amid a larger push by the Trump administration to bring troops home from conflicts including Iraq and Afghanistan in its final weeks. But while Trump may portray himself as a foe of the “forever wars” battling the foreign policy consensus in Washington, it was his administration that dramatically escalated U.S. involvement in Somalia, and after four years has very little to show for it.
The first U.S. airstrikes conducted in Somalia under the war on terror took place under the George W. Bush administration in 2007. Then, the drone war, primarily targeting the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabab, expanded under the Obama administration, which also began a small U.S. troop deployment there. Just two months after taking office, Trump declared Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” meaning strikes could be conducted with less stringent rules to prevent civilian casualties.
According to the monitoring site Airwars, which tracks both declared and alleged U.S. airstrikes and raids, the estimated number of strikes in Somalia jumped from 23 to 45 between 2016 and 2017. There were 93 in 2019, the height of U.S. activity in Somalia. This year, they’ve pulled back to 67 strikes, though that’s still more than were carried out in Obama’s eight years combined. During the last strike, on Nov. 6, a CIA officer deployed alongside U.S. and Somali special forces was killed.*
The administration has also rolled back requirements for reporting civilian casualties in these strikes, and alleged strikes carried out by the CIA are neither confirmed nor denied. For years, the administration claimed dubiously that there had not been a single civilian casualty in these strikes, a claim that was debunked persuasively in a 2019 Amnesty International report. Now, U.S. forces acknowledge five civilian deaths. Airwars estimates there have been between 69 and 142 deaths over the full 13 years of U.S. operations.
In addition to the air war, the U.S. forces on the ground in Somalia have been training the Somali army to carry out counterterrorism operations on its own. American private contractors have also been heavily involved in training Somalia’s elite special forces.
What does the U.S. have to show for all this? Not much. A report issued in November by the inspectors general of the Defense and State departments concluded that “despite many years of sustained Somali, U.S. and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded. Shabab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests.” U.S. officials have warned of threats to U.S. interests and personnel throughout the region.
As for the Somali National Army, it’s been described by one expert as “an army in name only, largely confined to defensive and localized operations, unable to undertake a coherent national campaign.” The Somali government has little legitimacy or control over large areas of the country.
There have also been reports that U.S. forces have been drawn into land disputes, often between rival clans, with Somalis labeling their rivals as al-Shabab to garner the support of foreign firepower.
Shabab is much weaker than it was in the days when it controlled a significant portion of Somalia’s territory. It was pushed out of Mogadishu by the African Union peacekeeping force known as AMISOM in 2011 and lost its last major urban stronghold the following year. While it continues to launch and plot attacks both in Somalia and in surrounding countries, thankfully there’s been nothing in recent years comparable to the 2013 Nairobi mall siege or the 2017 bombing in Mogadishu that killed 500 people. It doesn’t control territory in the traditional sense. But its members operate freely in much of the country, both as a militant group and a parallel justice system seen by many citizens as more legitimate than the corrupt government-run courts.
Somalia’s president and other officials have warned that the troop withdrawal will lead to a resurgence of al-Shabab. It probably will, to some extent. But as long as AMISOM remains in place, the government is unlikely to be overrun entirely. U.S. military officials also deny that they are disengaging from Somalia, saying they will continue to monitor the country and conduct counterterrorism operations from other countries, including Kenya and Djibouti.
“I think this will make it marginally easier for al-Shabab to operate and will be regarded by them as a win,” says Bronwyn Bruton, director of programs at the Atlantic Council and an expert on Somalia. “But unless there’s a dramatically different approach in Somalia, and there’s no evidence of Biden being the one to come up with that, there isn’t a very good option for the U.S.”
Bruton feels negotiations between the Somali government and al-Shabab are probably inevitable, and that a U.S. pullback may make them happen sooner. The painstakingly slow peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban show just how tricky such a negotiation could be, and how fraught given the violence and atrocities al-Shabab has carried out in the name of its extremist interpretation of Islam.
As with most of his foreign policy initiatives, Trump’s withdrawal announcement was poorly executed: It came with little apparent coordination with the Somali government; amid a triple threat of humanitarian crises including COVID-19, a locust outbreak, and severe flooding; and ahead of upcoming elections. The decision appears to be motivated more by Trump’s need to fulfill a campaign pledge than any assessment of the situation on the ground, much less any sense that the mission has been accomplished.
There’s some interesting historical symmetry to Trump’s lame-duck announcement. During his last December in office in 1992, President George H.W. Bush ordered 28,000 U.S. troops to Somalia in response to a humanitarian crisis, then left the crisis that culminated in the Battle of Mogadishu and the deaths of 19 American troops for his successor, Bill Clinton.
The ramifications of this move probably won’t be as dramatic. It’s been clear for years now that U.S. operations in Somalia were, at best, preserving a stalemate between the central government and al-Shabab. Without a major change in strategy, it was unlikely that the U.S. was going to wipe out the threat from al-Shabab altogether, or that any U.S. assistance was going to create a fully functional government and military in Mogadishu. And despite its professed links to al-Qaida and (among one subset) to ISIS, there’s little evidence that the group poses much of a threat to the U.S. homeland. Al-Shabab has made some extravagant threats about its worldwide intentions, but when it has targeted Americans, it has operated exclusively in its own region.
Sooner or later, the U.S. was going to withdraw from Somalia, and it was going to be messy. Trump may have done Biden a favor by making a tricky decision for him.
Correction, Dec. 9, 2020: This piece misstated that a CIA officer killed in November was the first American killed in Somalia since 1993.