End the US military presence in Somalia
It was reported this month that President Trump had called for a plan to withdraw US troops from Somalia, the poverty-stricken and war-stricken East African nation where about 700 US troops are stationed. The plight of those who live in Somalia is certainly tragic, as conflict, dysfunction and terrorism have made it the poster country for international relief efforts and non-governmental aid organizations since the end of the Cold War. But the costs and risks to the United States for our military mission outweigh the national security benefits.
The withdrawal of US troops from Somalia must be fully realized.
There is a higher level of sensitivity and awareness in the United States about our military and diplomatic involvement in Somalia due to extreme poverty and conflict. Drought and famine are estimated to have killed more than a quarter of a million Somalis between 2010 and 2012 and continue to pose a serious threat to the country. Since 1991, an estimated 350,000 to 1,000,000 Somalis have been killed as a result of the civil conflict. For good reason, the country attracts sympathetic and charitable public campaigns around the world.
The violence in Somalia first came to American attention in 1993 when 19 American soldiers were killed while supporting a United Nations mission in the Battle of Mogadishu. It was a shocking event after the overwhelming success of American forces in the Persian Gulf War two years earlier and was later canonized in the popular film Blackhawk Down.
Since 2004, the country has been ravaged by al-Shabaab, a powerful extremist Islamic insurgency group that can export terrorism to the region. It was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the US State Department in 2008 and in 2012 announced its affiliation with al-Qaeda.
Poverty and conflict are geopolitical issues that the global community should care about and want to tackle. But the ongoing international military presence in Somalia, as in other countries in Africa and the Middle East, has proven ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. So why are our troops still there?
Some government officials and international experts believe that military force should be used for humanitarian purposes, especially in conflicts with high casualties. Known as “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), the modern iteration of this school dates back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, where some believe international intervention could have prevented much of the bloodshed. This same line of thinking was used to justify the American and European intervention in Libya in 2011 and can be done for Somalia (and dozens of other countries).
The problem is that there are no real successes that humanitarian interventions can explain – in cases like Libya, these interventions have contributed to more violence, extremism, and deaths of Americans. But that didn’t stop his idealistic supporters from continuing to press him.
However, the most popular justification for our presence in Somalia is under the umbrella of the war on terrorism. The 2001 AUMF authorizes the president to use force to prevent future attacks on the United States by the organizations or supporters of those who carried out the 9/11 attacks. Al-Shabaab’s declaration of alliance with al-Qaeda in 2012 provides this legal link for those with a broad interpretation of the AUMF.
On closer inspection, however, al-Shabaab’s connection to the organization responsible for terrorism on US soil is unclear. In 2012, the core al-Qaeda group that planned and executed the attacks was largely disrupted, with its leader killed the previous year and its network fragmented and dispersed across the region. Many extremists around the world, from insurgents to lone actors, have pledged allegiance to or declared themselves an offshoot of al-Qaeda, but have shown little evidence of an operational link to the group.
Even more tenuous is the real threat Somali violence poses to US national security. Certainly al-Shabaab has proven deadly in the region, particularly in Kenya, Ethiopia and with piracy off the coast of East Africa. The US government has a responsibility to protect our embassies and our citizens in the region. Protecting the international sea lanes where U.S. commercial vessels operate has long been an established national security interest.
But these problems should not be confused with large-scale existential threats to the American homeland. Al-Shabaab has shown little ability to export terrorism outside the region, and the smaller threats posed can be mitigated by activities that do not require sustained ground operations on the ground. Our naval presence in the region can be scaled as needed to deter acts of piracy while improved intelligence, diplomacy and effective assistance can address other issues of violence and poverty without involving our military. in civil conflicts.
The situation of the Somalis is desperate and deserves the attention of the world. But our military presence for nearly three decades has not proven to be worth the cost and risk. President Trump is right to call for the withdrawal of American forces, and we must hope that it will be acted upon.
Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for defense priorities. He previously worked for a decade on Capitol Hill as a staffer on national security, foreign policy and homeland security issues. From 2013 to 2017, he was a top aide to Senator Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee.