End the American military presence in Somalia

Published: October 22, 2020

It was reported this month that President Trump asked for a plan to remove U.S. troops from Somalia, the poverty and war-stricken eastern African nation where roughly 700 U.S. troops are stationed. The plight of those living in Somalia is certainly tragic, as conflict, disfunction and terrorism have made it the poster-country for international relief efforts and non-government aid organizations since the end of the Cold War. But the costs and risks incurred by the United States for our military mission outweigh any national security benefits.

Withdrawing American troops from Somalia should be fully carried out.

There exists a higher level of sensitivity and awareness in the U.S. 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-million Somalians between 2010 and 2012 and continues to be a severe threat to the country. Since 1991, an estimated 350,000-1,000,000 Somalians have been killed due to civil conflict. For a good reason, the country attracts sympathetic and charitable public campaigns across the world.

Violence in Somalia first grabbed the attention of Americans in 1993 when 19 U.S. soldiers were killed while supporting a United Nations mission in the Battle of Mogadishu. This was a shocking event following American forces’ overwhelming success in the Persian Gulf War two years earlier and was later canonized in the popular movie Blackhawk Down.

Since 2004, the country has been ravaged by al-Shabaab, a powerful Islamic extremist insurgency group that can export terrorism in the region. It was designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2008, and in 2012 announced its affiliation with al-Qaeda.

Poverty and conflict are geopolitical problems that the world community should be concerned about and desire to address. But the ongoing international military presence in Somalia, like in other African and Middle Eastern countries have proven ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. So why are our troops still there?

There are government officials and international experts who believe that military force should be used for humanitarian purposes, especially in mass-casualty conflicts. Known as ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P), the modern iteration of this school traces to the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, where some believe international intervention could have prevented much of the bloodshed. This same line of thought was used to justify the U.S. and European intervention in Libya in 2011 and can be made for Somalia (and dozens of other countries).

The problem is that there are no real successes that humanitarian interventions can account for—in cases like Libya, these interventions contributed to more violence, extremism and death of Americans. But that hasn’t prevented its idealist supporters from continuing to press it.

However, the more popular justification for our presence in Somalia is under the umbrella of the War on Terror. The 2001 AUMF authorizes the president to use force to prevent future attacks on the U.S. by the organizations or supporters of those who committed the 9/11 attacks. Al-Shabaab’s declaration of alliance with al-Qaeda in 2012 provides that legal link for those with a broad interpretation of the AUMF.

On closer examination, though, al-Shabaab’s connection with the organization responsible for terrorism on U.S. soil is unclear. By 2012, the core al-Qaeda group that planned and executed the attacks was largely disrupted, with its leader killed the previous year and their network fragmented and scattered across the region. Many extremists across the world, from insurgencies to lone-wolf actors pledged allegiance or declared themselves an offshoot of al-Qaeda but showed little evidence of an operational connection with the group.

Even more tenuous is the actual threat that violence from Somalia has on U.S. national security. To be sure, al-Shabaab has proven deadly within the region, especially in Kenya, Ethiopia and with piracy off the coast of East Africa. The U.S. government has a responsibility to protect our embassies and citizens in the region. It has long been an established national security interest to safeguard international sea lanes where American commercial ships operate.

But these issues should not be conflated with large-scale, existential threats to the U.S. homeland. Al-Shabaab has shown little capacity to export terrorism outside the region, and the smaller threats posed can be mitigated through activities that do not require enduring land-based boots on the ground operation. Our naval presence in the area can be flexed 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 for Somalians is desperate and deserves the attention of the world. But our military presence over nearly three decades has not proven to be worth the costs and risks. President Trump is right to call for a withdrawal of U.S. forces, and we should hope it is followed through.


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 2013-2017 he served as a lead staffer for Senator Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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