In line with its long history of attracting the attention of many international actors for reasons ranging from military strategy to humanitarian assistance, Somalia has once again been the focus of international dialogues this week. The “attention” was not towards the million or so refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, the severe malnutrition among the Somali population or the apparent humanitarian emergency devastating the country. No, it rather has to do with a move taken by the White House in election season.
The news that broke early last week indicated that US President Donald Trump told top advisers he wants to withdraw US troops from Somalia. The electoral campaign decision has sent tremors in the horn and beyond. It has been reported that the President is making good on promises made on the campaign trail to bring soldiers back home.
The country still remains a hotbed for Al-shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist group. Different literatures in areas of governance, politics, peace and security raise Somalia as the ultimate example of a failed state or a portrait of fragile state. Despite the protracted efforts to ensure peace, stability and a government with monopoly of power, the government in Mogadishu still finds it hard to secure the territory on its own.
The need to strengthen the central government grew to some extent with a renewed threat in the form of terror, in the wake of the bomb attacks on US embassies in the capital cities of Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. The attacks attracted countries such as the US to intervene in rebuilding the state. This increased concern; however, it did not solely originate from the desire to help the people of Somalia in particular and countries of the Horn of Africa in general. Rather, the surge in interest originated from its strategic location for transportation and its role as a safe haven for terrorists.
While such claims and accusations were vocal and some measures were taken in the country following the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001, Somalia was added to the US shortlist for a possible intervention.
The then US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said “Somalia has a certain Al-Qaeda presence already.” This claim by the US administration sparked a new interest in Somalia’s affairs. While no conclusive evidence was provided back then as to which group is linked with Al-Qaeda, it has since been clear that it was Al- Shabaab.
The activities of the group eventually forced Western and regional countries to coalesce together to restore peace and security in the country. With growing concerns, the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) was established and launched its operations to combat terrorists in the country.
Apart from this, a handful of countries including the US, Britain, Italy, Turkey and some countries from the Gulf region have their own presence in the country to support the operations of AMISOM and reestablish the state apparatus, which was dismantled in 1991 after the overthrow of the central government.
Somalia has been without a functioning state ever since Siyad Barre’s, the then President of the country, ouster in 1991. None of the competing factions were strong enough to take his place as ruler of the country, producing first chaos, but gradually a form of a stateless order. International interventions have since failed and counter-productive intervention by the United Nations and the United States in the early 1990s exacerbated the situation rather than mitigating the problem.
While operations by AMISOM and other partners have failed to achieve sustainable peace and security in the country to some extent, the decision by the US to withdraw its troops from Somalia is regarded as a major blow to the region. Trump began sending more forces to Somalia by mid-2017 as part of counterterrorism efforts. Adding to Somalia’s potential security challenges, in addition to U.S. troops leaving, is the scheduled withdrawal of the African Union peacekeeping mission by the end of next year.
According to the US Africa Command, the US has 650 to 800 troops in Somalia, including Special Forces that are helping train Somalia’s army. All or almost all were sent during Trump’s presidency.
Despite the Somali government’s dependence on US troops, withdrawing them would allow Trump to claim he has fulfilled a 2016 campaign promise to end overseas wars and bring soldiers home, adding to moves previously taken in Afghanistan, Syria and Germany.
Somalia President Abdullahi Muhammed Farmajo in a tweet said his government wants US troops to stay. “The United States military support to Somalia has enabled us to effectively combat Al Shabaab and secure the Horn of Africa. A victory through this journey and for Somali-US partnership can only be achieved through continuous security partnership and capacity building support,” the President said.
Trump’s desire to pull his troops out of Somalia has created unease among experts in the region and warned that it could leave a power vacuum for groups to fill. Al Shabaab continues to carry out suicide bombings and other attacks in the Eastern African country despite being the target of frequent US drone strikes.
A geopolitical analyst speaking to The Reporter on condition of anonymity said: “while the plan to withdraw from Somalia is not yet concrete, it could leave the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) less effective, given that the US troops have been providing essential aerial surveillance on Al-Shabaab’s activities and helping in air raids using drones.”
Others also call the move by the US President as a shortsighted political decision, arguing the decision does not take into account the reality on the ground and warning that to withdraw troops out of Somalia now would harm America’s future security. In addition, the analyst noted that US support was crucial in reaching inaccessible areas through drone strikes.
Given the current political climate in Ethiopia, the analyst further went on to state that the Ethiopian government might also pull its troops to focus on its own internal affairs. If this was to happen, he warned, the likelihood of terrorists reorganizing themselves in Somalia would be high, pausing a threat both for the region and the international community.
Rather than prematurely bringing troops home from Somalia, remarked the analyst, President Trump should shift his approach to that of defeating Al Shabaab, and not fulfilling his campaign promises for a better end. This shift should repurpose the light military footprint already present in the region to support a civilian-led strategy focused on filling Somalia’s governance deficit, the expert said.
Establishing effective governance in Somalia is key to defeating Al Shabaab. Such an approach would deny the group the opportunity to strengthen and regroup. That way, when US troops do leave Somalia, they do not have to return.
The possible withdrawal of US troops could also have implications on the regional power dynamics of countries and regional organizations. The role of the US army in providing intelligence and ensuring aerial domination through the use of drones in inaccessible areas needs to be bridged once they vacate the country in the horn of Africa. This responsibility could be transferred to regional powers such as Ethiopia and Kenya or international arrangements such as AMISOM. As equipping the unilateral or multilateral forces bound to take the role is critical, the regional powers could enjoy revamped military assistance from the international community. The move could potentially change the capacity of regional powers to use drones for surveillance and military attacks.
The government of Somalia would also need to step up its army building efforts and coordinate better with regional powers. With the withdrawal of US troops from Somalia affecting numerous aspects of military, diplomatic and political relations in the horn, the relevant stakeholders need to come together to seamlessly go through the power transition.