I guess I’ll have to read Black Hawk Down now. Of course I’ve seen the Ridley Scott movie, which seemed to have everyone in it; there is Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana and Sam Shepard, Jeremy Piven and Tom Hardy, and—hey, wait, did they just kill Orlando Bloom? But I was supposed to read the book in college and, confession, didn’t. (Maybe I was trying to get through Middlemarch that week?)
I understand why it was assigned. While the movie is a military action great, focused on the attempt to rescue helicopter crews in Mogadishu, Black Hawk Down is a modern journalism classic, collecting 29 Philadelphia Inquirer articles by author Mark Bowden about Unified Task Force operation Gothic Serpent in Somalia in 1993, the U.S.’s attempt to capture Somali political figure and militia leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
Anyway, the White House announced Monday that President Joe Biden is redeploying an undisclosed number of ground troops to Somalia. “This is a repositioning of forces already in theater who have traveled in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis,” the press secretary said. The move, which will allegedly involve no more than 500 servicemembers, reportedly comes at the request of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to “enable a more effective fight against al Shabaab.” Al Shabaab is an Islamist military group, allegedly with Al Qaeda connections, seeking to topple the famously stable Somalian central government in Mogadishu.
This deployment is a direct repudiation by the Biden Pentagon of former President Donald Trump, who had ordered the withdrawal of some 750 U.S. troops stationed in Somalia in December 2020. Maybe Trump watched Black Hawk Down, too.
Why are we in Africa at all, let alone Somalia? I understand the adults in the room are distracted—there’s a central European country to funnel displaced patriotic energy and billions of dollars into and there’s an inflation crisis to wave at, around, behind, and over—but no one seems to be asking or answering the basic question. Is an American troop presence in Somalia in the national interest? The answer depends on how you think about terrorism.
If you follow foreign policy and international-relations writing even casually, you’ll be left with the impression that Africa, even with its 54 countries, is something of a periphery. This is not primarily some holdover of half-empty maps and mysterious references to a Dark Continent; the infamous scramble for colonial holdings and the ongoing chaos of decolonization took care of that.
Rather, the global balance of power has remained preoccupied with the Eurasian landmass, and more recently has begun to look east to the Indo-Pacific. After all, as we’ve been reminded in a rather rude manner recently, central Europe, and Ukraine in particular, is a vital breadbasket and geographic fulcrum where West and East meet. In the classic conception of military power qua productive power, it represents the span of earth that might rival North America, in God’s good time. And of course, if we here in the New World look in the other direction, we can see that the globe’s largest economies, and the globe’s two most populous countries, share Indo-Pacific coastlines.
All of which is to say that sustained military interventions in African countries—or even intermittent ones, as the case was in Somalia even after Trump’s order to withdraw—seem necessarily to fall into one of three strategic camps. They can be directed towards the Eurasian situation. They can be part of the Indo-Pacific pivot. Or, they can be peripheral, a continuance of existing programs. As global supply-chain mismanagement, local misgovernment, and civil wars further push both North and Sub-Saharan Africa into chaos, Europe can expect an escalation of its migrant crisis; not all “climate refugees,” as they will be increasingly called, come from American misadventures in the Middle East.
Instability in Africa seems set to add instability to Europe, even as the French withdraw from Mali; whether that will play out to America’s advantage is an exercise left to the reader. Meanwhile, as part of its Belt and Road initiative, China has invested heavily in African countries, seeking especially rare-earth-mineral rights essential to high-technology industries. Africa remains rich in natural resources, even if poor in development—a recent report even suggested its gas production could be improved to offset the loss of Russian sources—and may still prove useful to CCP efforts to build a parallel international economic order and gain control of existing international institutions like the U.N.
This Biden administration Mogadishu sequel falls clearly into the last camp, however: continuing existing programs. The soldiers, like most U.S. personnel in Africa and most in active combat zones these days, are members of the special forces (light footprint and a punishing operations tempo) and focused on counter-terrorism work. “Our forces are not now nor will they be directly engaged in combat operations,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. “The purpose here is to enable a more effective fight against al Shabab by local forces.”
The numbers for Somalia look pretty bad: Attacks by the Islamist militia rose by 17 percent in 2021 compared with the previous year, according to D.C.’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Attacks are projected to rise by 71 percent. The American interest here is reportedly that the group helps fund Al Qaeda internationally. But with a war on in Ukraine, relations chilling in the Indo-Pacific, and cartels making a failed state just beyond our wide open southern border, it is difficult to rank an Islamist militia in Somalia very high on the U.S. priorities list. Fewer than 500 troops might sound like an appropriately small deployment in abstract, but let’s ask what we gain by being there before a Black Hawk or two goes down in Mogadishu.