Somalia has quickly risen in prominence on the international stage as a state disturbed by violent terrorism and religious extremism. Over the past year, Obama’s administration has amped up the U.S. military presence in Africa due to growing alarm at the growth of transnational terrorism.
The purported U.S. “shadow war,” involves private contractors, Special Forces, drones, and mercenary instructors who are all operating against Islamist militants; yet, the scope and scale of the drone war is unknown. Only due to a complaint by a U.N. monitoring group, ancillary official statements, and media interpretations do we know the capacity of U.S. attacks along with the potential future model of U.S. war in Africa (1). Most importantly, the Somalia shadow war exhibits how advanced American forces can wreak massive destruction on enemies at moderately low expense.
Of late, Al-Shabaab, a militant group based in Somalia, has proclaimed its allegiance to al-Qaeda. Since its expulsion from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda has sought to reorganize in another country in which it could count on local backing. Somalia is the perfect place. As a failed state with ungovernable anarchy, no functioning central government, and no operative police force, terrorists have almost free reign. An even bigger draw is that Somalia’s extensive seacoast is the perfect entry port for al-Quaeda terrorists escaping from Afghanistan as it is mostly unpatrolled. Hence, there is much thought that Somalia will become the next ground-zero in the international war against terrorism.
Consequently, President Obama has increased his deployment of force in Somalia in order to protect both American and African troops from al-Shabaab. The U.S.’s increased involvement could be a signal that Washington’s past victory against al-Quaeda in Somalia is quickly deteriorating. In recent times, al-Shabaab has become bolder and craftier in the strategy behind their attacks. From targeting Somali generals to police headquarters and seaside restaurants, no one is safe from their assaults.
It is impossible to dispute the militant threat in Somalia since al-Quaeda and al-Shabaab have aligned themselves. Although it is clear that America’s increased involvement violates an international arms embargo, General Carter Ham, the Commander of the US African Command (Africom) stresses that the most important military priority for the continent of Africa is to counter extremists. Thus, Africom’s mission according to its website is to “protect and defend the national security interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states and regional organizations and, when directed, conduct military operations, in order to deter and defeat transnational threats and to provide a security environment conducive to good governance and development” (2).
American troops are now rotating through temporary bases in Somalia by the hundreds, which is the the largest military presence in Somalia since the 1993 Black Hawk Down battle (3). Beginning in 2007, drones such as the Predator and Reaper drones have pursued jihadists in Somalia. This is part of a larger crusade of naval gun onslaught, jet bombing attacks, and cruise-missile runs.
Yet, Africom normally has less than 5,000 troops at any given time in Africa. According to senior American military officials, there are about 200 to 300 American Special Operations troops that conduct around 6 ground raids and drone strikes per month. These raids are carried out alongside soldiers from African nations like Kenya along with soldiers from Somalia. Those who enter the country, are typically only on clandestine operations to kill radical targets. Yet, America is involved in funding over 9,000 African union troops from places like Burundi and Ugandi against al-Shabaab (4).
The US’s shadow wars in Africa have faced a variety of setbacks. Firstly, there is a lack of bases in Africa and Somalia. Besides that, there is also a deficiency of international agreements on flight paths along with restricted communications. Additionally, many African countries rightly do not want to have a sizeable US force within their boundaries. As a solution, the US should use more sea-oriented surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance.
However, the Pentagon is cutting back on traditional operations due to defense budget cuts. Both legislators and the public are apprehensive about the expenses incurred from military ventures into Africa. Importantly, critics claim that the shadow wars create fear and enemies while encouraging violence instead of alleviating acts of terrorism. International law and civilian liberties are often overlooked.
Instead, governments should tackle acts of terror through international cooperation that seeks to eradicate the root causes of terrorism. For example, state-sponsored violence, poverty, and political alienation need to be dealt with. The very anarchic structure of Somalia that makes it an effective breeding ground for al-Qaeda and terrorism, also makes it a very volatile area for military maneuvers. Thus, the United States needs to attune its military and political duty to Somalia with these parameters in mind.
The United States should strive to lessen its physical presence inside Somalia and operate from crafts off the coast in order to avoid giving Somalis new reasons to join the militant war against America. As a top priority, the US needs to focus on seizing al-Qaeda’s and al-Shabaab’s top officials before they create a complex base of operations in Somalia. Lastly, the U.S. needs to cooperate with Kenya, Ethiopia, and other African countries to halt the spread of radical Islam. Without an evident threat from al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, the U.S. should dodge making a continuous military commitment in Somalia and should match its level of commitment with the gravity of the threat.
Ironically, is it actually the United States’ counterterrorism allies, crooked Somali regimes and institutions and Kenyan conspiracy with al-Shabaab’s financial sponsors, that potentially threaten American aims. It is clear that America is entering a new generation of fighting in which many U.S. battles can be fought in the shadows by robotic aircrafts, high-tech drones, and commandos.
Image: © Landraupx | Dreamstime.com - U.S. Central Command Memorial Photo
Alanna Schenk is a student studying International Relations with a minor in Human Security and Geospatial Intelligence at the University of Southern California. Her primary interests are in ecological security and human security, specifically related to the regions of Northern Europe and Africa. She is particularly interested in how geospatial technologies can be used to study and offer suggestions for humanitarian intervention and issues of human security. Specifically, she fascinated by how satellite and remote sensing can be used to improve documentation capabilities and research across the fields of human rights and humanitarian intervention. Furthermore, she is a research assistant for the Lab on Non-Democratic Politics at USC and has also spent time conducting field research in the Arctic. On campus, Alanna is a fellow with the Levan Institute of Humanities and Ethics, a Senator for the Undergraduate Student Government, and a member with USC's Teaching International Relations Program.