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PoliticsIs Trump’s Somalia move déjà vu all-over again?

Is Trump’s Somalia move déjà vu all-over again?

Little has been reported by global mainstream media outlets about Africa policy of the new President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, but recent announcements provide an emerging outline of an approach that gives priority to security concerns. Support for democracy, development and health may no longer be policy cornerstones as they have been for all post-Cold War presidents – Democratic and Republican. On 30 March, the Pentagon announced President Donald Trump’s approval of revised combat rules for US forces fighting the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Many fear that it would reduce protections for civilians as the US military has been given the green light to launches an intensified assault in Somalia, writes Bruh Yihunbelay.

The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America was seen by many as a bewildering political spectacle. Some even went overboard and labeled the election of the real estate mogul-cum-TV personality as sheer mockery of the whole process of democracy.

True to form, Trump has been extremely unorthodox and highly erratic, and his unpredictable behavior was manifested at the initial stages of the campaign.

Building a wall on the US-Mexican border, which he said would be paid for by Mexico, the temporary banning of Muslims from entering America, the deportation of 15 million illegal immigrants and repealing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act a.k.a. Obamacare were what Trump said would be the panacea for America’s problems.

The mantra “Make America Great Again” resonated among a significant number of Americans, who believed that their country was being taken away from them. Though the proposals forwarded by Trump sounded highly unlikely to be achieved, even by some of his staunchest supporters, many were on the Trump bandwagon.

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Throughout the campaign, Trump said that his opponents are the “Washington establishment” and went on to beat eloquent politicians and debaters like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida in the republican primaries.

To the utter surprise of many, on November 9, 2016, the world woke up to the news of Trump winning the presidency by beating Hillary Clinton. Then, at the end of January 2017, Trump relocated to Pennsylvania Avenue and settled inside the Oval Office to shoulder the colossal responsibility of becoming the President of the United States of America.

It would not be an overstatement to say that Trump is the most criticized and scrutinized president to date – and it is the media that unleashed its fury on the new American president from the day he announced his candidacy. However, that did little to deter Trump from doing what he promised he would do. In that regard, it did not take him long to issue executive orders.

He commenced by temporarily banning citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries including three African countries – Libya, Somalia and Sudan – from entering the US. The ban did not take effect as federal judges blocked the move. Trump did not stop there; he attempted to repeal Obamacare. That too did not get a go ahead from congress. His administration also restricted electronic devices larger than a cellphone being carried on some flights from majority-Muslim countries. The rollercoaster ride did not stop there.

Just last week, Trump authorized US military to beef up its muscle in Somalia, which includes conducting offensive airstrikes. The decision, again, was not taken lightly by observers. What does that mean for Somalia and the Horn of Africa as a whole, since it has been exactly 23 years since US troops withdrew from Somalia.

The move was considered as a bold one, considering the fact that America has a history in Somalia – a not-so-great-history.

The story goes like this; US Task Force Ranger was created in August 1993, and deployed to Somalia in September. It consisted of various elite special operations units from Army, Air Force and Navy special services. On October 3, 1993, Task Force Ranger began an operation that involved traveling from their compound on Mogadishu’s outskirts to the center with the aim of capturing the leaders of the clan, led by Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

The operation was intended to last no longer than one hour. However, shortly after the assault began Somali militia and armed civilian fighters shot down two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

The subsequent operation to secure and recover the crews of both helicopters extended the initial operation into an overnight standoff and daylight rescue operation on October 4. The battle resulted in 18 deaths, 73 wounded, and one helicopter pilot captured among the US raid party and rescue forces. 

After the battle, the bodies of several of the conflict’s US casualties were dragged through Mogadishu’s streets by crowds of local civilians and forces of the Somali National Alliance (SNA).

Analysts say that the outcome of the battle was a pyrrhic tactical US victory and strategic SNA victory. The mission in Somalia was seen by many as a failure. The then president, Bill Clinton, ordered US troops to stop all actions except those required in self-defense. Then the US announced that it would withdraw from Somalia no later than March 31, 1994.

Even after the US withdrew from Somalia, the hostility has never ceased.

To counter Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, the United States has increasingly used Special Operations forces, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies. Hundreds of American troops now rotate through temporary bases in Somalia. They have served as trainers and advisers to African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali government forces, and have sometimes participated directly in combat.

Be that as it may, the US and Somalia were never foes from the get go. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Somalia’s then socialist government abandoned alliances with its former partner the Soviet Union due to fallout over the Ogaden War with Ethiopia. Because the Soviet Union had close relations with both the Somali government and Ethiopia’s then new communist Derg regime, they were forced to choose one side to commit to. The Soviet shift in support to Ethiopia motivated the Siad Barre government to seek allies elsewhere. It eventually settled on the Soviet Unions’ Cold War rival, the US.

The US had been courting the Somali government for some time on account of Somalia’s strategic position at the mouth of the Bab el Mandeb gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Somalia’s initial friendship with the Soviet Union and later military support by the United States enabled it to build a formidable army in Africa.

After the collapse of the Barre government and the start of the Somali Civil War in the early 1990s, the US embassy in Mogadishu was evacuated and closed down.

Even if that was the case, America has always kept a close eye on Somalia and the region.  For instance, The New York Times carried a front page story on April 8, 2008 titled ‘North Koreans arm Ethiopians as US assents’. According to the report, George W. Bush administration officials allowed Ethiopia to complete a secret arms purchase from North Korea, in what appears to be a violation of UN sanctions on North Korea.

The report revealed that the US allowed the arms delivery to go through in part because Ethiopia was in the midst of a military offensive against Islamic militias inside Somalia, a campaign that aided the American policy of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.

Similarly, the Pentagon had a drone base in Arba Minch, Southern Regional State that had served as a key hub from 2011-2015 for collecting surveillance on Al-Shabaab.  After a four-year stay US troops and contractors packed up the Reaper drones and dismantled their small base of operations in September 2015.

“The drone base was shut down because of the establishment another drone base in Somalia. The purpose of the drone base in Arba Minch was to fight Al-Shabaab and to maintain the drone base when there is one in Somalia becomes obsolete,” Leulseged Girma, a geopolitical analyst, told The Reporter.

Back then, analysts also said that the shutdown in Ethi­o­pia was realignment of drone operations to West Africa to fight Boko Haram.

In addition to that, analysts said that though US officials believed that Al-Shabaab still represents a serious regional threat, Somalia has gradually become more stable since the US drone base in Ethi­o­pia opened in 2011 and that it was mission completed.

Nonetheless, the US has not completely left the Horn of Africa as there is a major military base in Djibouti. The small country in the Horn of Africa hosts and is in the process of hosting many Western, Eastern and Middle Eastern powers including China.

Still, for Ethiopian officials, the change in administration would not change anything with regards to Ethiopia, as Ethiopia is a strategic ally of the United States. And that was what was reiterated by the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, Workneh Gebeyehu (PhD).

“Ethiopia is an important ally to the US and the change in administration would not change the relationship between the two countries,” Workneh told MPs on Tuesday April 4, 2017.

However, the new Trump administration has reoriented its focus on Somalia. The latest decision gives commanders at the United States Africa Command greater autonomy to carry out offensive airstrikes and raids by ground troops against Al-Shabaab. That, according to a security analyst, who spoke to The Reporter on conditions of anonymity, sets the stage for an intensified combat, while increasing the risk of civilian casualties.

The request for an increased autonomy came from the Pentagon and Trump approved the proposal to expand its targeting authority. “It’s very important and very helpful for us to have little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of decision-making process,” General Thomas D. Waldhauser, top commander at United States Africa Command, said. “It allows us to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion.”

Similarly, Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the aim is “to defeat Al-Shabaab in Somalia” in partnership with AMISOM and Somali forces. “The additional support provided by this authority will help deny Al Shabaab safe havens from which it could attack US citizens or US interests in the region,” he said.

Previously, to carry out airstrikes or ground raids in Somalia, the military was required to follow Presidential Policy Guidance, a set of rules former president Barack Obama imposed in 2013 for counterterrorism strikes away from conventional war zones, like those in Afghanistan and Iraq. The rules required high-level, interagency examining of proposed strikes. They also said that the target must pose a threat to Americans and that there must be near-certainty that no civilian bystanders would die.

According to Leulseged, President Obama reiterated the importance of coordinated counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and countries in the Horn of Africa especially with Ethiopia. That is the only path to defeat terrorism and it is very important to enable Somali security forces and the various communities to wipe out Al-Shabaab from the country, Leulseged said.

“Under the latest expanded autonomy, commanders may strike people thought to be Al-Shabaab fighters based only on that status, without any reason to think that the individual target poses a particular and specific threat to Americans,” the security analyst said. “It will make it easier for commanders in the field to call in airstrikes without waiting for permission from the pentagon; that changes the whole rule of the game.”

According to the security analyst, this is a good illustration of how the American military is fast-tracking the ways it carries out missions under the Trump administration. However, for the security analyst, there is a downside. “There is definitely greater risk of incurring civilian casualties. That could make local cohorts turn against the US and others who combat militants in Somalia,” he said.

Fearing possible negative results, Leulseged says that President Trump should not only abandon conventional war in the fight against Al-Shabaab but he should also revise his travel ban policy which will have its own effect in radicalizing ordinary Muslim citizens in Somalia and other countries.

Leulseged also sees this from a geopolitical perspective. “The [Trump] administration is countering and balancing the influence of Iran in the region,” he told The Reporter. “The new president feels that President Obama’s soft diplomacy of the last eight years has given way to Iran to have undue influence, to harbor militants such as ISIS, and to play an important role as seen in the Middle East, particularly in Syria.”

In addition to that, Leulseged says that Eritrea is hosting Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates forces on its soil in the fight against the Houthis in Yemen. Turkey has shown interests in Somalia. Other Middle Eastern countries are vying for the establishment of military bases in other countries of the Horn.

“The Horn has been a place of proxy wars. The crowding of these world powers in the region indicates the importance of the Red Sea for trade and fighting terrorism,” Leulseged told The Reporter.

According to Leulseged, it is also as a way to use the desired regional location of Somalia to help control the movement of people and goods in the region; those seen against the interest of the US.

In that regard, Washington has revealed that it wants the newly elected Somalian president, who also happens to be a US national, to “Make Somalia Great Again”. A cap bearing the Trump type rallying call was presented by the US Ambassador to Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed.

“Make America Great Again”, the four words which helped propel Donald Trump into the White House received a makeover in Somalia, when US Ambassador Stephen Schwartz presented the newly elected Somalian president with a hat that reads, “Make Somalia Great Again”.

In spite of everything, for the security analyst, the decision to nip Al-Shabaab in the bud would be welcomed by the Somali government as the militant group is a common enemy.

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