Somalia and the Limits of U.S. Bombing
The Trump administration has made it clear that the United States will take a more aggressive approach to battling al-Shabaab extremists in Somalia.
In March, President Trump granted the military expanded authorities to operate in Somalia, paving the way for an accelerated military campaign.
By declaring parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities,” Mr. Trump gave the Department of Defense authority to approve strikes without going through an Obama-era vetting process, which potentially lowers the bar for tolerance of civilian casualties. And the head of American forces in Africa, who advocated the change, said this would “allow us to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion.”
The United States also recently sent several dozen additional troops to Somalia and reportedly requested information on the locations of aid groups there, possibly to ensure they are out of the way of airstrikes. One American soldier was killed in Somalia this month, the first combat death there since 1993.
There is little to be gained by making intensified military engagement the dominant policy approach to Somalia. The absence of an effective state is the fundamental problem there. When and where there is some semblance of governance, it is often profoundly corrupt and subservient to a deeply ingrained clan system. Al-Shabaab capitalizes on resentment of government ineptitude, corruption and lack of economic opportunity to recruit, especially among Somalia’s youth.
Airstrikes do nothing to address these failures. Instead, they may create more problems by allowing African Union forces to retreat, further militarize American policy, sideline diplomatic engagement and undercut the newly elected Somali president.
After making notable progress for several years, troops from Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Djibouti and Burundi fighting al-Shabaab under an African Union banner have slowed the pace of their offensives. Some in Washington and the region mistakenly assume that regional forces will match new American aggression.
But the danger is that countries like Kenya and Ethiopia, which have substantial contingents of troops in Somalia, could instead pull back and let America do the fighting. With elections scheduled for August, Kenya’s leadership is reluctant to risk casualties that would incur political blowback. Ethiopia has already pulled some troops from Somalia as the country endures significant domestic turmoil.
Without their support, the nascent Somali Army is unlikely to make significant advances and cannot hold territory claimed from al-Shabaab.
For the United States, there is a risk that accelerating military operations will widen the significant gap between American military and diplomatic engagement. Most American diplomats working on Somalia are based in Nairobi and take short trips to the capital, Mogadishu, where they are largely confined to the airport complex.
This constrains diplomats’ ability to work with the Somali government and other influential Somalis, to help critical ministries and emerging state governments build their capacity and to oversee humanitarian assistance provided in response to a continuing, crippling drought.
More military operations could mean more boots on the ground, which risks the handful of American diplomats being reduced to playing second fiddle in engagements with Somalis, especially outside Mogadishu.
An accelerated United States military campaign also risks undercutting Somalia’s newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, who — like his predecessors — has declared war on al-Shabaab but also offered amnesty to Shabaab fighters.
Last year an American airstrike intended for al-Shabaab instead hit government-aligned militia forces in northern Somalia, killing at least 10 soldiers. The United States was accused of being tricked by a Somali faction into making the strike against its rivals. More strikes may invite further such efforts by factions.
Collateral damage can serve as a potent recruiting tool for al-Shabaab, which maintains the ability to organize significant hit-and-run attacks.
Cuts in American development and diplomacy budgets will also compromise the United States’ ability to support President Mohamed at precisely the time he needs to demonstrate results.
While the Trump administration’s plan for assistance to Somalia remains unclear, in the current fiscal year the nation is slotted to receive over $196 million in foreign assistance. This does not include substantial humanitarian aid, over a billion dollars, provided to the wider Horn of Africa region in response to the continuing drought and threat of famine.
Instead of bombing, the United States can do much more to support a stable and prosperous Somalia. Vital federal ministries need guidance and oversight, including through embedding international and diaspora experts in those ministries and close scrutiny of their expenditures.
Encouragingly, several of the planned six state governments are getting on their feet and showing a nascent ability to govern. American diplomats should focus as much of their attention and resources on these states as they do on Mogadishu, be present in the states to show support and encourage President Mohamed to fully commit to the federal structure.
The fledgling Somali Army needs continued and accelerated American training. That army seeks to grow to 18,000 troops and begin taking over from African Union forces next year. President Mohamed is requesting that a longstanding arms embargo be lifted to better equip the army. American training has been effective in developing a small group of elite Somali commando forces known as Danab, support that should continue and expand as capable new recruits are identified.
And United States diplomats need enhanced facilities and greater mobility to engage Somalis nationwide. Given the large sums rightly being devoted to countering potential famine, including $990 million recently allocated by Congress to Somalia and three other countries, American diplomats and development professionals need to be on the ground to oversee programming and minimize corruption.
These lines of effort should be the centerpiece of American strategy for Somalia. Progress on these fronts will ultimately deliver a stronger blow to al-Shabaab and its terrorist recruitment than any airstrikes.