Biden Sends U.S. Troops Back to Somalia
The president’s quiet reversal of Trump’s Somalia withdrawal was a mistake with no clear connection to American national interests.
When President Biden decided which “forever wars” to wind down in whole or part, the nebulous U.S. military intervention in Somalia did not make the list. On the contrary, the Biden administration in May made a little-noticed announcement that it would reverse former President Donald Trump’s late 2020 order to withdraw most U.S. troops from the African nation. The United States will have a “persistent presence” in Somalia, the Defense Department said, continuing an “advise-and-assist mission” for local forces fighting the insurgent group al-Shabab.
That announcement said American forces wouldn’t be “directly engaged in combat operations” in Somalia, but that’s a dubious claim, as news of a U.S. airstrike against al-Shabab this week demonstrated anew. The fact is the United States has, if not quite a war, certainly a longstanding and significant military presence in Somalia—one which was never explicitly authorized by Congress and which includes both aerial bombing and boots on the ground. What we don’t have is a strong reason to maintain this arrangement, to remain involved in Somalia’s internal strife and expose ourselves to the real (if low) risk of expanded war. Biden’s reversal of the Trump withdrawal from Somalia was a step in the wrong direction.
That’s not to say Trump’s drawdown changed a lot. As his administration noted at the time, the force movement did little to shift U.S. policy in Somalia, and the U.S. was “not withdrawing or disengaging from Africa.” Trump had markedly escalated the pace of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia, and, like Biden, he did not treat it as a boundless war to end or constrain to a limited mission with a measurable goal. Still, removing troops from the country had at least the merit of reducing their exposure to unintended conflict, like the ambush in Niger in which four U.S. soldiers were killed by Islamic State militants in 2017.
The Biden administration has cast its reversal of that troop movement as a matter of logistical pragmatism. Deploying in and out of Somalia is itself risky, Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters in May. Kirby also said keeping in closer contact with Somali partners would be advantageous because this kind of training mission “is best done when you’re on site, and you can develop those relationships and keep those conversations going and stay as relevant as possible.”
That may all be true, but what this explanation doesn’t address is why the mission should happen at all; whether it has any limits of geography or chronology; or whether there are any circumstances under which it might be deemed completed and ready to conclude. Asked for details on al-Shabab’s allegedly “increasing threat” to the United States in May, Kirby punted, declining to “get into specific intelligence” and leaping, without providing evidence, from the real threat the group poses in Somalia to the possibility of a threat to the United States. “Al-Shabab continues to conduct attacks, certainly there in Somalia,” he said. “And we know that in the past, they have expressed at least the intent and desire to attack outside the region, including against American interests.”
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That’s a frightening notion, but the narrative doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. First, the Biden administration hasn’t addressed the distance between desire and capability: that al-Shabab wants to attack the United States doesn’t mean it can. The group’s regional attacks are typically horrific affairs with high civilian casualty counts, but successfully staging an attack in Somalia or a nearby country and pulling one off on U.S. soil are very different propositions. “The threat to the homeland is extremely attenuated and possibly nonexistent,” Katherine Ebright, who focuses on national security at the Brennan Center for Justice, said in a recent interview with Vox.
Even if we grant that Al-Shabab poses a realistic threat to Americans, however, the administration also hasn’t made its case that U.S. military intervention in Somalia reduces that threat. Conventional wisdom of counterterrorism after the 9/11 attacks said we should intervene in chaotic countries to keep them from becoming terrorist safe havens, places from which they could plan a U.S. attack. “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America,” then-President George W. Bush said in 2007. But given modern communications technology, that wisdom is no longer obvious. Terrorists can plan attacks from anywhere in the world. They don’t need an isolated base in Somalia.
If anything, keeping a U.S. presence in Somalia likely raises our risk from Al-Shabab. We have interests in Somalia because we have a military intervention in Somalia, and we have a military intervention in Somalia because we have interests in Somalia. It’s a circular, self-justifying mission, one which attempts to address the risk the mission itself incurs. Unfortunately, the Biden administration shows no inclination to break that cycle or even define circumstances under which the mission—which has continued for 15 years now, and which many experts believe will never produce a military victory—could conceivably end. “This is not a threat that’s going away,” Kirby said. What he didn’t say is why the Biden administration believes it is a threat the United States must, or even can, address.