Assessing the Goals of U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts in Somalia
This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which ran from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019. More information about the writing contest can be found here.
As the Global War on Terror continues to expand, the U.S. believes it is important to maintain sound strategy and policy in order to bring about success and avoid costly foreign policy and militaristic commitments. This is especially true in Somalia, where the U.S. is engaged in a small war which currently has a light footprint approach, but risks of increased involvement are possible.
The GWOT and Somalia
The Global War on Terror continues to wax and wane with the foreign policy objectives of the United States. This is especially true in Africa, specifically in Somalia, where a U.S. presence has been in country intermittently since 2003. Somalia is one of the United States’ many small wars that are part of the campaign against Islamist Terrorism post 9/11. The current terrorist organization that warrants a U.S. military presence is Al Shabaab. It is important to understand that Al Shabaab is allied with and mimics Al Qaeda. However, some members claim that “they do not wish to wage a global jihad, merely to dominate East Africa.” In this way Al Shabaab may differ from Al-Qaeda but this difference makes them no less of a threat to U.S. national security. Furthermore, Al Shabaab routinely attacks civilian populations and is a threat to the U.S.-backed government in Mogadishu. In 2007 African Union Forces were able to drive out Al Shabaab militants and retake most of Mogadishu, however Al Shabaab continued to exist in the suburbs and threaten the capital.
Presently, the Somalia National Army and police forces with assistance from African Union, Kenyan, and Ethiopian militaries, continue to wage a counter insurgency campaign against Al Shabaab. The United States continues to be involved indirectly in combating Al Shabaab by supporting regional forces with military advisors. However, without a clear-cut purpose and end goal, the United States risks mission creep and more potential long-term militaristic commitments.
As part of the Global War on Terror the U.S. has had a presence in Somalia since as early as 2003. This early presence in Somalia was made up of the Central Intelligence Agency and small elements of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), specifically the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), also known as SEAL Team 6. These early elements focused on intelligence gathering and relying on local warlords bankrolled with U.S. cash to eliminate Islamist groups in the region.
In 2011 U.S. President Barack Obama authorized a drone strike campaign in Somalia targeting Al Shabaab. This was a shift from the Bush administration whose primary focus was intelligence gathering and counter-piracy operations. Under the current Trump administration, Obama’s policy of drone strikes has continued, and JSOC has become heavily involved in Somalia. This involvement represents an increase of American commitment to the anti-Al Shabab effort over a significant amount of time. Combat by American forces is not officially confirmed. Multiple sources report that the Pentagon is extremely tight- lipped on operations in Africa and especially Somalia. According to The New Yorker, the Pentagon did not respond to a request for information on ongoing operations in Somalia. Nick Terse quotes a “reliable source within the JSOC community who stated, we are heavily engaged in combat as well as advise missions and have sustained casualties, but things are kept as quiet as possible.” It appears that the advise and assist role requires members of the U.S. military to accompany local forces on missions which can lead to actual combat for U.S. troops.
Whatever the official policy, if U.S. forces are at risk, American public and policy makers awareness is of value so they can realize the potential consequences, should mishaps or potential loss of life occur. In fact, casualties have occurred in Somalia, Kenya, Chad and Cameroon according to Retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Donald Bolduc formerly in charge of special operations in Africa. Make no mistake, American service members are at risk in these advise and assist operations, with or without public knowledge of their presence. Furthermore, absence of sound policy or strategy may mean that these service members sacrifices are in vain.
It is unclear whether U.S. policymakers and senior defense officials consulted the Powell-Weinberger doctrine prior to the deployment of forces to Somalia. Consulting this doctrine would have helped provide needed clarification for the U.S. military mission in Somalia. For example, why is the U.S. in Somalia? To fight Al Shabaab? To preserve geopolitical stability? At what point will Al Shabaab be defeated? The Powell-Weinberger doctrine would ask if it is politically feasible to win in Somalia, and more importantly what does winning look like? What size of force would be needed to accomplish the goal? Also, what is the compelling U.S. national interest in Somalia?
It is significant to note that African Union forces will be withdrawing from Somalia in 2020. Is the United States going to fill this security void by increasing their footprint, or maintain its current approach? Without a clear end goal in mind, the American military in Somalia is left without a real direction, other than to train Somali forces and conduct joint raids against Al Shabaab. It is worth considering that Somalia has lacked any real centralized government that maintained control since it was a colonial possession. As a result of this weak government, insurgencies such as Al Shabaab thrive and prosper. The likelihood of the United States defeating the insurgency and propping up a stable government in Somalia without a large militaristic and diplomatic commitment is slim. Development of clear goals and strategy can help the U.S. achieve victory in Somalia without being dragged into a quagmire abroad.
 Who are Somalia’s al-Shabab? (2017, December 22). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-15336689
 Ferguson, J. (2018, March/April). Trump’s Military Escalation in Somalia Is Spurring Hope and Fear. The NewYorker.
 Naylor, S. (2016). Relentless strike: The secret history of Joint Special Operations Command. New York, NY: St. Martins Griffin.
 Bowman, T. (Writer). (2019, February/March). How Global Is The Global War On Terror?[Radio broadcast]. In 1A. Washington D.C.: NPR.
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