The Pentagon’s war against terror in Somalia was supposed to begin winding down next year, but the number of American airstrikes against al-Shabab targets keeps increasing and the Trump administration’s exit plan seems to have stalled.
The conflict is a major outlier in President Trump’s quest to stop “endless wars,” as U.S. military involvement has ramped up steadily over the past four years.
It also has caught Pentagon leaders between two increasingly unpalatable options and has created a potential quagmire in the Horn of Africa. There is virtually no political will to commit American ground troops to a lengthy fight, which is likely necessary in order to decisively defeat a powerful al Qaeda affiliate that controls an estimated 25% of Somali territory and has proved itself capable of carrying out major terrorist attacks.
But a full U.S. withdrawal, specialists warn, could result in disaster and a power vacuum likely to be filled by a host of bad actors.
The federal government in Mogadishu remains weak even by regional standards, and neither Somali government troops nor African Union forces patrolling the country are capable of dealing with al-Shabab on their own.
This week offered another reminder of how deadly the terrorist group can be. Al-Shabab militants on Monday tried to drive a car bomb through a checkpoint near Jana Cabdalle, Somalia, killing two Somali soldiers and wounding one American service member. The group also supported the car bomb attack with mortar fire, U.S. military officials said.
Against the backdrop of such attacks, the sustained U.S. air campaign seems to be all that is keeping the fragile country from being entirely overrun by a terrorist army.
“Somalia makes Afghanistan look like a First World power,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Washington think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies who tracks the U.S. war in Somalia. “Shabab is still able to carry out high-profile attacks in the capital [of Mogadishu]. It’s not going away, and the Somali forces are not going to be able to handle this on their own.
“The U.S. actions in Somalia are basically keeping a lid on the problem,” he said. “It’s not going to defeat Shabab. … We can only effect change on the margins here.”
Despite its limitations, the Pentagon’s Somali air war continues to pick up steam. U.S. forces so far this year have conducted at least 46 strikes against al-Shabab targets, according to figures provided by U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM.
Last year, it carried out at least 51 airstrikes. The figures do not include additional U.S. actions targeting Islamic State fighters in the country.
If the pace continues, then the U.S. will set another record for the number of airstrikes against al-Shabab in a calendar year. The U.S. has set such a record every year during Mr. Trump’s time in office.
That trajectory was supposed to begin turning around next year. U.S. AFRICOM commanders previously said the U.S. and the African Union Mission in Somalia intended to begin handing over the military campaign to Somali forces next year.
But a Department of Defense inspector general’s audit of U.S. military activities in Africa made public Sept. 1 cited only “limited progress” in the fight against al-Shabab and categorized the battle as, at best, a stalemate.
The inspector general’s report said the terrorist group carried out 608 attacks in the second quarter of the year, up from 568 in the January-to-March quarter. Poor weather and a lack of resources kept the recorded number of U.S. airstrikes in the second quarter to just seven, down nearly 80% from the previous three months.
“During the quarter, al-Shabab used varied and complex tactics in its attacks, including insurgent-style tactics, ambushes, harassing and hit-and-run attacks, and improvised explosive devices,” the auditors found. “USAFRICOM reported that al-Shabab remained active in Mogadishu, carrying out multiple targeted killings in the capital and several mortar attacks at the Mogadishu International Airport complex.”
Pressed this week on whether that plan remains in place, U.S. officials said only that the timeline is dictated by Somali leaders. They offered no firm date on ending American involvement.
“Incremental progress is occurring. Our efforts and support have resulted in disrupting and suppressing al-Shabab ambitions to increase violence and export it more broadly,” AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan told The Washington Times. “The timeline has, and will always remain, in the hands of our Somali partners and their Somali-led transition plan.”
Beyond airstrikes, U.S. efforts in Somalia include the training and equipping of the Somali National Army’s Danab Advanced Infantry Brigade.
‘Weather the storm’
Pentagon officials stressed that while the U.S. campaign has been effective at limiting al-Shabab’s spread and has taken out some of the organization’s top commanders, there is no pure military solution for a nation besieged by decades of political instability, economic turmoil and violence.
That backdrop has created ripe conditions for al-Shabab to grow into one of the most effective and resilient terrorist insurgencies in the world. Despite the frequent U.S. bombings, al-Shabab is estimated to have as many as 9,000 fighters in its ranks. It uses these militants to engage in traditional ground combat against Somali and African Union forces and to carry out terrorist attacks.
The incident Monday was just the latest in a string of attacks against American personnel and Somali federal forces.
In January, one American service member and two contractors were killed when al-Shabab militants stormed a military base across the Somali border in Kenya. Last month, the organization carried out a car bomb attack at a military base in Mogadishu that killed at least seven people.
Soldiers from the Somali National Army reportedly were stationed at the base, offering more evidence that al-Shabab is not scared of going toe-to-toe with government forces in an all-out ground war. The group also seems content to continue its strategy in the belief that the U.S. eventually will give up and leave.
“Shabab has demonstrated since its founding that it has a big enough recruiting base and that it has the wherewithal to weather the storm,” Mr. Roggio said. “If the U.S. starts pulling out and transitioning to Somali forces … Shabab is still going to be there.”
The transition plan for next year was at least partly tied to the Somali government’s ability to hold elections and demonstrate some semblance of control over the country’s military and civil affairs. Somali elections, however, have been postponed from this November and aren’t expected to conclude until August.
Halima Ismail, chairwoman of the country’s electoral commission, said in June that “significant technical and security challenges” caused the delay.
Amid that political chaos and with a military campaign that has no clear end date, some specialists argue that the U.S. should revamp its entire approach to the country. They argue that Washington should borrow a page from its Afghanistan playbook and begin facilitating talks between the two sides — despite how distasteful it may seem to engage diplomatically with al-Shabab.
“The path to reconciliation is through negotiations. Consequently, neither intensifying airstrikes alone nor disengaging militarily from Somalia — as long called for by some critics of existing U.S. policy — represent the best way forward,” wrote Paul D. Williams, a professor in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University who studies Somalia extensively, in a recent piece for the website War on the Rocks.
“Instead, Washington’s priority should be to invest more diplomatic muscle to secure two linked negotiated settlements: one to unite Somalia’s fractured federal and regional governments and, later, a second deal to end the civil war with al-Shabab,” he said.