Unprecedented diplomacy gave the Trump administration a path out of Afghanistan, and questions have been raised about whether a similar playbook could work for the seemingly endless U.S. military mission in Somalia.
Most analysts and military insiders say the U.S. air campaign against the al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, which has expanded steadily throughout President Trump’s nearly four years in office, can contain the group but not fully defeat it. With al-Shabab estimated to control as much as 25% of Somali territory, and with a central government in Mogadishu ill-equipped to handle the resilient terrorist group on its own, debate is growing in foreign policy circles about whether the U.S. should shift its focus to negotiations rather than a war with no end date and murky metrics for progress.
The question has grown more urgent with serious setbacks in recent years for al Qaeda and the Islamic State group. Al-Shabab’s ability to hold its own in the field is proving an inspiration to jihadi movements in Africa and around the world.
The State Department stresses that “reconciliation” among all stakeholders in Somalia is key to peace in the historically dysfunctional country. Officials in the administration have routinely conceded that military action alone isn’t the answer. The administration’s approach, officials said, encourages cooperation between the federal government in Mogadishu and the country’s five member states, which wield considerable power and influence outside the capital.
It’s unclear whether the administration has seriously considered putting its own diplomatic weight behind negotiations with al-Shabab in the same way it did with the Taliban in Afghanistan. A U.S.-led deal there has led to a major drawdown of American forces and brought the Taliban and the Afghan government together for a face-to-face dialogue last week in Qatar.
Foreign policy analysts are clearly divided about whether such a tack could work in Somalia. Some argue that talking to al-Shabab would amount to negotiating with terrorists and that the group wants to target Americans abroad.
“Al-Shabab’s leadership sees itself as playing an active role in the global jihad by pursuing those attack capabilities, unlike the Taliban. That is one key difference,” said Katherine Zimmerman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who studies terrorist groups in Africa.
“Al-Shabab will not recognize the Somali government and, like the core al Qaeda in Afghanistan, might see any peace deal as progress toward installing Islamist rule,” she said. “Al-Shabab is al Qaeda. Any deal with it would be giving al Qaeda a safe haven and helping it achieve its objective of transforming how Muslims live their lives.”
Indeed, the situations in Somalia and Afghanistan have clear differences. While the Taliban gave safe haven to al Qaeda in the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the insurgent movement has told the U.S. that it will break ties with extremist terrorist outfits and will not allow them to find refuge in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s top priority always has been regaining political power inside Afghanistan. Although it has mounted attacks that have killed Americans and routinely battles Afghan security forces, it has not shown an inclination to wage war outside the country’s borders.
But there is one key similarity: Like the nearly two decades of war in Afghanistan, U.S. involvement in Somalia has no apparent exit and seemingly no path to a definitive victory.
So far this year, the U.S. has conducted at least 46 airstrikes against al-Shabab and is on pace to break last year’s record number of 51. Despite the expanding U.S. military presence, along with efforts to train and advise Somali government forces, al-Shabab has proved itself capable of carrying out major attacks, including several this year that have killed or wounded Americans.
The U.S. air assaults and ground operations by Somali and African Union forces have not stopped al-Shabab’s ability to carry out those attacks. Some scholars say the U.S. must fundamentally rethink its approach.
“In the unlikely event that the federal government or al-Shabab do somehow gain a significant upper hand militarily, there is no avoiding a negotiated settlement of some sort with the other’s supporters,” Paul D. Williams, a professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University who studies Somalia extensively, said in a recent piece for the website War on the Rocks.
“It would certainly be better for Somali civilians if such negotiation happens sooner rather than later. The alternative is that they continue to bear the brunt of this deadly war,” he said. “Moving forward, therefore, Washington should focus on increasing its diplomatic muscle to encourage these two sets of negotiations. This is preferable to both the main alternatives: continuing the business-as-usual approach of the last decade or abruptly disengaging militarily before the Somali security forces are able to stabilize the country.”
The argument for negotiation is bolstered by the lack of public or political appetite in the U.S. for a ground war in Somalia, which would likely be necessary to convincingly defeat al-Shabab. In the absence of that, Mr. Williams said, the U.S. first should press for a lasting deal between the federal government and its member states.
Then, he said, the U.S. should back formal peace talks between the Somali government and al-Shabab.
The State Department clearly believes that diplomacy is as important to Somalia’s long-term future as military action, though there are questions about whether the U.S. would involve itself directly or pressure the Somali government to more aggressively seek a negotiated peace.
“The United States has long maintained there is no exclusive military solution to the challenges al-Shabab poses to security and stability in Somalia,” a State Department official said in a statement. “We fully support Somali-led efforts to defeat al-Shabab and other terrorists’ influences using a rights-respecting comprehensive approach, including through defection; reconciliation; reintegration; economic development; and improved, effective governance.
“We continue to focus on the importance of strengthening relations between the federal government of Somalia and the federal member states, a Somali consensus on a credible elections model that can be implemented in a timely fashion, increased efforts to provide livelihoods for communities and to facilitate significant investment for development as key elements that must be advanced simultaneously with military actions against al-Shabab for long-term peace, stability and development in Somalia,” the official said.