The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is on track to withdraw almost all U.S. forces from Somalia by January 15, 2021, providing a gratuitous public relations and operational windfall to al-Shabaab, Somalia’s potent al-Qaeda affiliate. The hasty exit compromises the reputation of the United States as a partner and opens the door to a greater role for the People’s Republic of China. President Donald Trump ordered the move precipitously, and the Department of Defense announced it on December 4, 2020. The action puts at risk the security of American citizens, the homeland, and strategic interests. The withdrawal comes at a time when Somalia is in political crisis and jeopardizes the stability of Somalia’s nascent civil government. The incoming Biden administration should reverse the decision and set its own policy and strategy for Somalia.
A decade ago, counterterrorism was the United States’ top national security concern, and Somalia’s newly created transitional government had no capacity to govern. Al-Shabaab controlled most of south and central Somalia, including almost all of Mogadishu. Since then, African Union forces (AMISOM) cleared al-Shabaab from Mogadishu and many other cities and towns. Somalia’s state-building project completed the creation of its constituent member states and conducted two peaceful transfers of power. Yet, recent years saw little progress in building civilian governance, and, in some areas, there was a regression. The United States should apply a whole-of-government approach to help the next Somali government develop more accountable institutions that can improve the lives of its people and weaken and displace al-Shabaab. The military alone is unlikely to resolve this conflict, but military pressure is a key ingredient in bringing about a negotiated solution.
The Threat is Real
Al-Shabaab still controls roughly half of south and central Somalia and seeks to establish an Islamic state throughout the country. The territory that al-Shabaab does not control outright are city-state enclaves, including Mogadishu, protected by roughly 20,000 AMISOM forces, or areas not under control or protection of any governing entity. According to terrorism scholar Tricia Bacon, “Al-Shabab is thriving because it’s still offering a comparatively attractive alternative to the Somali government. It capitalizes on grievances, keeps areas secure and settles disputes, with relatively little corruption. That’s especially attractive in undeveloped or remote areas that the fledgling government has neglected.” Even though it doesn’t control Mogadishu outright, al-Shabaab runs an extensive taxation apparatus throughout the city, what scholar Ken Menkhaus calls “a very good extortion racket.” It is also the “go to” dispenser of civil justice. Its penetration of key institutions allegedly extends to the port of Mogadishu, the city’s main market, the Chamber of Commerce, parliament, and all levels of government, including the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA).
Al-Shabaab has killed more than 4,500 civilians in Somalia as well as hundreds of Kenyans and others in East Africa since 2010 and is developing the capacity to strike farther afield. In March 2020, AFRICOM Commander General Stephen Townsend called al-Shabaab “the largest and most connectedly violent arm of al-Qaida.” This was echoed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on November 17, 2020 who characterized al-Shabaab “as one of al-Qa’ida’s most dangerous affiliates.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley said on December 21, 2020 that al-Shabaab “could if left unattended conduct operations against not only U.S. interests in the region, but also against the homeland.” They all were correct. In January 2020, al-Shabaab killed three Americans in an attack on Camp Simba at Manda Bay, Kenya. On December 15, 2020, the United States extradited an al-Shabaab member from the Philippines, where he was training “to hijack aircraft in order to conduct a 9/11-style attack in the United States,” in a plot directed by senior al-Shabaab officials.
Senior U.S. officials recognize al-Shabaab as a dangerous al-Qaeda franchise with the capacity to threaten the United States, yet Acting Secretary of Defense Miller wrote on November 13, 2020, that “we are on the verge of defeating al-Qaida and its associates, but we must avoid our past strategic error of failing to see the fight through to the finish.” There is no metric by which al-Qaeda is near collapse, and only verbal contortions can portray a hurried withdrawal as seeing “the fight through to the finish.” Therefore, it is hard to see the policy rationale for President Trump’s troop withdrawal decision.
What Brought the United States Back to Somalia?
In the mid-2000s, the United States sent small numbers of special operations forces to Somalia to “find, fix, and finish” al-Qaeda terrorists. Following the establishment of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in 2012, the U.S. military initiated a partnership with AMISOM and the Somali National Army (SNA) to help them degrade al-Shabaab and give the FGS time to develop the capacity to govern. The European Union, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, and others have also contributed to this effort.
The U.S. focus has been to build and support capable Somalia special operations units to take the fight to al-Shabaab. The United States also built the Puntland Security Force (PSF), which now operates without U.S. assistance in the northeast of the country. At the time of writing, the United States had funded, recruited, trained, and partnered with an SNA special operations force of about 1,000 soldiers, known as Danab (“lightning” in Somali). While capable, Danab still lacks about half of its projected personnel and sufficient headquarters, mobility, and weapons to operate without the planning and support provided by the U.S. military. Indeed, without that relationship, Danab’s personnel, mission, and equipment are at imminent risk of being appropriated by other SNA units, and Somalia’s most capable force would disappear.
The U.S. military partnership with the SNA is a low-risk, low-cost, long-term project that weakens al-Shabaab and strengthens a friendly government in a strategic part of the world. Since returning to Somalia in the late 2000s, the U.S. military presence averaged about 300-400 personnel. Over more than a decade, the United States has lost two service members in Somalia. Each of these is a tragic loss, but the number is small given the extent and duration of U.S. operations in that country. By contrast, peak U.S. troop levels in Iraq and Afghanistan were 157,800 and 99,800, respectively, and total military deaths were 6,636. U.S. forces have increasingly empowered Danab to lead operations by building their capacity and confidence and increasing their visibility to the Somali public while reducing the risk to U.S. personnel. Counterterrorism experts Matt Castelli and Col. (ret) Bob Wilson assert that “the United States has already demonstrated that this model — of a low-key, special operations and intelligence platform — is effective in Somalia for over a decade.”
The United States shuttered its embassy in Mogadishu in January 1991 amid Somalia’s escalating civil war. Incrementally through the 2010s, the United States broadened its engagement, establishing a small embassy on the grounds of the Mogadishu airport led by an ambassador and including a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) mission and a defense attaché. The Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are other important contributors to the relationship.
Counterterrorism and Great Power Competition
The fight against al-Shabaab is a classic counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency effort, at a time when U.S. attention is turning to great power competition with China and Russia. But Somalia is more than al-Shabaab, and what the United States does there will affect myriad other equities. Somalia, including the self-governing northwestern territory of Somaliland, has a 2,000-mile coastline that abuts the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. Recognizing the region’s importance, China built its first overseas military base in neighboring Djibouti, where the United States, France, Japan, and others have military facilities. The UAE, Turkey, and Russia have or have signed agreements to establish bases nearby in the Red Sea. With mounting global attention on the greater Bab el-Mandeb, the United States has broader strategic interests in reinforcing its position in the region rather than retreating from it.
In addition, Hal Brands and Tim Nichols contend, “Retaining competency in counterterrorism is itself a crucial contribution to great-power competition.” It would be a significant setback for the United States if al-Shabaab prevailed in Somalia and established a caliphate and an al-Qaeda safe haven. U.S. drone strikes against mostly mid-level targets impinge al-Shabaab’s freedom of action, but the utility of this tool will diminish without ground forces to collect intelligence and, in some cases, direct strikes. Maintaining a small U.S. footprint now might well forestall the need for a more costly new deployment later.
Finally, great power competition is exactly that, a competition. The significant U.S. role in Somalia through 2020 left little space for China or Russia to engage, but with a diminished U.S. presence, Washington can expect its adversaries to take advantage. Somaliland infuriated China in September 2020 when it exchanged envoys with Taiwan, and Somalia was powerless to reverse the move. One can expect China to assert itself more energetically to counter Taiwan and to develop Somalia’s role in the Belt and Road Initiative. The United States should not keep troops in Somalia solely or primarily to keep China out, but abruptly abandoning a longstanding partnership will have great power consequences.
Somalia Must Lead
In recent years, the Somali people have faced adversity on a biblical scale, literally. War, pestilence, famine, drought, locusts, floods, and poverty. Over 80 percent of the population is under the age of 35, with an unemployment rate of approximately 70 percent. Even a capable and well-led government would have been challenged by those scourges, but Somalia has not been so fortunate. President Farmajo’s four years of failed leadership has rendered Somalia less unified and less stable. Rather than work collaboratively with the presidents of the country’s five Federal Member States (FMS, or “states”), he took every opportunity to undermine or try to control them. In one case, he detained on spurious charges the leading candidate in the Southwest state election. The presidents of Puntland and Jubaland were elected despite Farmajo’s opposition.
This lack of cooperation and goodwill has impaired Somalia’s development. FGS and FMS leaders failed to agree on responsibilities for the country’s security, update and ratify the constitution, or make any progress in talks with Somaliland. Farmaajo kept his first prime minister for a record 3.5 years, during which time the government improved public financial management, biometrically registered all members of the military and police, and instituted electronic salary payments. Unfortunately, Farmaajo persuaded parliament to fire the prime minister in July 2020, reportedly for trying to find compromises with the states.
On foreign policy, Farmaajo and his principal ally, the country’s intelligence chief, have benefitted from millions of dollars allegedly provided by Qatar, which in 2017 displaced the UAE as the FGS’s primary financial benefactor. Those funds fuel political corruption and make the country a willing pawn in the influence contest between Gulf Arab states. Farmaajo chose to break diplomatic relations with Somalia’s important neighbor Kenya and to send troops to occupy the Gedo region of Jubaland, rather than negotiate differences with Kenya over their contested maritime boundary, involvement in the border state of Jubaland, and shared fight against al-Shabaab.
Somalia is scheduled to hold its quadrennial elections for parliament and president in February and March 2021, respectively. Somali leaders agreed on the process only in mid-2020, and preparations have been slow and controversial. The roughly dozen candidates competing against Farmaajo have threatened to hold a parallel election if the FGS does not improve the credibility of the process. Some key demands are the removal of civil servants, including NISA employees, from what are supposed to be neutral federal and state electoral committees and the withdrawal of federal troops from Gedo, so Jubaland can manage its electoral process without FGS interference.
Somalia’s future depends on political and clan leaders accepting the outcome of the electoral process and facilitating another peaceful transfer of power to a president with the capacity and intention to move Somalia forward. The international community has historically helped Somalis manage precisely the sort of political challenges it now faces. The views of the United States have carried considerable weight with Somali political leaders, not least because of the important role it has played in the country’s security. The incoming Biden team should focus early on Somalia’s election and ensure the U.S. ambassador is empowered to advocate for a credible and timely process.
The Way Forward
The Biden administration should immediately review the full range of U.S. interests with Somalia and develop a fresh policy. The policy should recognize that Somalia’s insecurity stems from a failure of governance and that “political and governance problems need political and governance solutions,” according to Elizabeth Shackelford. The goal is achievable. Many Somali organizations—from the Hormuud and Dahabshil companies to the Somaliland and Puntland governments—operate effectively; Somali citizens deserve no less from their federal and member state governments.
This approach would depend on Somalia’s new leadership making demonstrable progress building capable institutions and governing effectively and accountably. In return, the United States would intensify its diplomatic engagement, increase and accelerate development assistance, and reinvigorate its security partnership to help Somalia achieve greater stability and self-reliance. If Somalia’s leaders fail to make progress building effective and accountable institutions, the United States should cut back its diplomatic and development support and limit interventions to those that protect the homeland and key U.S. interests.
Somali leaders would need to address three key areas:
1-Improve Governance. With Somalia perennially ranked worst in the world for corruption, Somali leaders must instill greater accountability and transparency in government finance and operations. Somalia’s 400-page National Development Plan provides a comprehensive analysis and prescription to move the country out of poverty and insecurity. Al-Shabaab eschews non-Koranic education and Western medicine, which the overwhelming majority of Somalis want. Somali government success in improving public access to quality education and healthcare would not only reduce poverty levels, it but would also improve the population’s respect for government and undermine al-Shabaab’s standing.
2-Set the Foundation. Thirty years of conflict and division have left Somalis with a profound shortage of “social trust,” which hinders cooperation across communities and provides al-Shabaab opportunities to exploit divisions and grievances for its advantage. Somali authorities need to finalize, ratify, and bring into force the country’s new constitution to provide clarity on the country’s laws and how government responsibilities will be apportioned and funded. Somaliland’s status must be determined, which could allow for more cooperation and better management of disputed boundary issues. Somalia’s leaders also need to agree on and implement a plan to achieve the long-delayed “One Person One Vote” electoral system.
3- Reform the Somali National Security Forces. Somali political leaders must agree on the division of federal and state responsibilities for security, the modalities of clan integration, funding, and basing of units. The majority of the SNA is comprised of former clan militia that have not been melded into a national force and which, under pressure, could fracture. Many units lack discipline and are unwelcome when posted outside of their home districts. Foreign-trained units tend to operate outside of the SNA command structure and often receive higher salaries, building resentment within the SNA and diffused loyalties among the forces. The next president needs to reconstitute the SNA into a capable, clan integrated, and accountable national army, which can assume security responsibilities from AMISOM sometime after the planned 2021 handover.
With a commitment and follow-through from Somalia’s national leaders, the United States would be in a position to engage productively. The new U.S. approach would feature a more robust and expeditionary civilian role to:
1- Work More with the States and Somaliland. U.S. engagement occurs overwhelmingly at the federal level, which has little capacity to deliver services outside of Mogadishu. The United States should revive its former “Dual-Track” approach by ramping up assistance to the periphery. Somalia’s provisional constitution provides for shared responsibilities for key public services; however, most states lack adequate security, human resources, and financing. Bolstering their capacity and output would help Somalis receive the security and services they lack and boost the viability of the member states as governing entities. Due to its distance and estrangement from Mogadishu, the United States should establish a consulate in Somaliland to assist U.S. citizens and businesses and to build relationships. It also should work with the African Union and others to resolve Somaliland’s status by persuading Somalia’s next president to undertake immediate and serious negotiations. Somaliland’s stability and location—particularly the port of Berbera—could give the United States strategically useful options, but only if Somaliland has international legal standing to negotiate agreements or consented to provisions of arrangements negotiated by the FGS.
2- Increase and Speed Up Development Assistance. To displace and defeat al-Shabaab, the Somali government must earn the population’s support. USAID’s business development program has attracted investment to the private sector and created jobs. Health and education are sectors where U.S. assistance could make a meaningful difference if sizeable enough and implemented quickly. This would require USAID to program much faster. For example, the “Teach or Learn” education program remains unimplemented despite the bilateral agreement being signed more than four years ago. Such a delay undermines U.S. diplomacy and models failed service delivery.
3- Resume Military Training and Reform. A modest U.S. military presence in Somalia designed to train Somali forces and support them against al-Shabaab is an appropriate and affordable role for the United States. It furthers the global fight against violent extremism, helps build the capable and accountable military that Somalia needs, and provides diplomatic leverage to induce further improvements in governance. The United States can provide an effective presence at troop levels well below the 700-800 operating in Somalia in late 2020. It can limit operational deployments to bases in Baledogle and Kismayo with episodic engagements elsewhere. Force protection at Baledogle could be provided by resident and capable Ugandan forces and contractors. U.S. officials should consider replacing Navy SEALs, whose mission focuses on the maritime domain, with Army or Marine special operations units, which are designed to train, advise, and partner with foreign forces.
Vigorous and balanced U.S. engagement can help determine whether Somalia becomes an increasingly stable and secure country that engages positively with the world or whether it remains a haven for international terrorism and fraught with corruption, division, and conflict. U.S. diplomatic, development, and military resources are each required, and they induce and bolster contributions from other nations. Somalis must be the authors of their future, and if Somalia’s next leadership demonstrates a commitment to progress, then the United States should help it succeed.
By Stephen M. Schwartz
Stephen M. Schwartz served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Somalia (2016-17) since 1991. He retired in 2017 as a member of the Senior Foreign Service and the rank of Minister Counsellor. During his Foreign Service career, Mr. Schwartz served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Zambia and in Mauritius, and mid-level or junior officer in Ethiopia, South Africa, Burundi, and Cuba
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.