May 17, 2022

Biden Is Right to Send Troops to Somalia, But Political Progress Is Needed

Originally published in AEIdeas

US troops are going back into Somalia. And that’s good. They support US-trained Somali counterterrorism forces against al Qaeda’s largest affiliate, al Shabaab. Their mission won’t change, nor will the resources behind it. But it will be less risky and more effective. President Joe Biden has absolutely made the right call to reverse an eleventh-hour decision by the Trump administration to pull American forces out.

Al Shabaab has targeted Americans in East Africa and abroad. In 2013, the group attacked the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya, frequented by Westerners, and killed 67 people. By 2016, the group had its sights set on a 9/11-style attack, and in 2019 an al Shabaab operative was arrested while receiving pilot training. In 2020, al Shabaab killed three Americans in an attack on a US base in Manda Bay, Kenya. Since the US withdrew forces in January 2021, al Shabaab’s threat has only grown.

General Stephen Townsend, Commander United States Africa Command, appears before a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing, April, 22, 2021. Rod Lamkey/CNP/Sipa USA

The repositioning of US forces outside of Somalia in January 2021 made it harder for them to do their jobs. General Townsend, the commander of US AFRICOM, testified earlier this year to the challenges faced in “commuting to work” and that conditions “may be backsliding.” The relationship with Somalia’s counterterrorism forces—a key component of the US partner-centric counterterrorism strategy—was worsening, and al Shabaab was strengthening again.

President Biden’s decision to approve the request from the Pentagon to put a limited US military presence—under 500 troops—back on the ground in Somalia should be the first step toward fixing a problematic US approach to al Shabaab’s terror threat. The US military presence certainly serves as a backbone for other US initiatives, be they diplomatic, humanitarian, or development, but is not the panacea for success. Over the years, US commanders have told Congress as much: that without political progress, any military gains against al Shabaab are temporary. And the experience over the past 18 months proves them right.

Returning US special operations forces to Somalia buys time and space to engage with Somali partners and begin addressing the litany of issues that plague the Somali government, from reforming the judiciary to tackling widespread corruption. Without such efforts beyond the counterterrorism space, any gains will be temporary, and then the US will indeed be stuck in an endless war against al Shabaab.