Ramping up air strikes after 12 years, does the Trump Administration have a new strategy for the war in Somalia or is this escalation “mission creep”?

Kenyans going for water in Eastern Province with jerry cans on red dirt

The Trump Administration’s escalation of the air power part of the war in Somalia in recent months has caught the attention of American journalists. See recent reporting in The New York Times and Amanda Sperber’s investigative reporting in The Nation. A recent Amnesty International report that U.S. air strikes have caused 14 civilian casualties since 2017 had enough salience now to draw a formal AFRICOM denial in response. Al-Shabaab has maintained a recent high rate of suicide bombings causing mass civilian casualties as well as targeting government officials.

[Update 2: On April 5, AFRICOM released this statement regarding civilian air strike casualties, indicating that records had been discovered showing two civilians killed in April 2018 with further review to be conducted.]

[Update: See April 3 from the Council on Foreign Relations, “Controversy over U.S. Strikes in Somalia“,]

Meanwhile, Kenyan forces under AMISOM are reportedly continuing to pull back into more defensive position and thus leaving previously secured villages.

In a nutshell, the current chapter of war in Somalia has been underway since December 2006 with the Ethiopian invasion to restore the Transitional Federal Government which had been forced out of Mogadishu and was under threat of complete collapse in the face of fighters supporting the Islamic Courts Unions. There is a fair bit of fog on the details of the U.S. role. Secretary Condoleezza Rice wrote in one of her memoirs, No Higher Honor, that Ethiopian leader Meles Zenawi, already having expressed concern about spillover effects in Ethiopia from an extremist takeover in Somalia, called her on December 29 to let her know that his military was going in and, “Frankly, I did not try to dissuade him”. While there seems to be no surfaced evidence that we initiated the idea and some Americans involved in dealing with the Ethiopians could have been more discouraging at some prior point–clarity will await the historians–we nonetheless got directly involved without any public debate or disclosure to the American public. By the “go date” –just prior to December 29–we ended up providing air support and special forces hunting terrorists, at least, as well as coordinating with Kenya in the south as reported.

See “David Axe on ‘America’s Somalia Experiment’ provides a timely reminder of policy in the Horn of Africa in 2007-08“.

Rice’s memoir indicates she had no high regard or expectation regarding the TFG. She also writes that the Ethiopians were supposedly intending to be quickly in and out. Given these two factors, it is hard to understand exactly what was hoped for or expected (one has to be at least reminded of Libya or Afghanistan or Iraq where we were supposedly intervening militarily to prevent bad behavior without having a clear plan for the aftermath).

There has been some argument from commentators that we opposed the Islamic Courts Union because it was “Islamist”. The United States has close and supportive relations with a variety of Islamist governments, most conspicuously of course the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself which has had such a big ideological footprint in re-shaping education and worship among Muslims in Kenya, Somalia and throughout East Africa (and globally) so it does not make any sense to think that the U.S. supported a military ouster of the ICU just because they were Islamist rather than either tolerant or secular.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia had become a military ally of perceived importance and the invasion made sense for Meles Zenawi as head of a EPRDF regime that had its own reasons be concerned about a consolidating Islamist government regime next door, in an environment in which it had cracked down on political expression following a strong opposition showing and protests from the May 2005 election. For the U.S. I suspect that the motivator, in addition to supporting Meles, was the notion of the ICU as providing a “safe haven” for al Qaeda figures, including especially suspects in the Kenya and Tanzanian Embassy bombings, rather than issues more specific to the civil war or otherwise of internal governance. Al-Shabab has a long history with al Qaeda connected foreign fighters in leadership, and al Qaeda’s involvement in Somalia predated the ICUs by many years, although al-Shabaab it did not publicly and formally declare allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and become an open affiliate until 2012.

In 2002 the United States Central Command had established its base in Djibouti for the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa.  In December 2006 the new “Africa Command”–AFRICOM–had been announced but did not become operational and take over the Somalia war in its Area of Responsibility until late 2008, or almost two years into the war. AFRICOM has continued to be headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany for ten years now and relies on the CJTF-HOA as its only formal “base” on the continent, although in layman’s terms it has many small “base-like facilities” with various “MILSPEAK” labels across the north and central parts of the continent. Journalist Nick Turse in particular has identified facilities for American readers who do not have the opportunity to see these locations for themselves by seeking records and public sources, while sparring with the AFRICOM public affairs function who seem to have orders to make sure only skeptics will report most of what AFRICOM does. Several of these facilities, such as Camp Simba at Manda Bay near the Somali border in Kenya, are particularly relevant to the warfighting in Somalia. See “Africa is a Command: from Bush to Obama to Trump“.

Following the Ethiopian action, in early 2007 the African Union AMISOM “peacekeeping” force was established to continue to defend the restored TFG and it’s internationally sponsored “transition”, with the EU funding the AU to pay for troops from Burundi, Uganda and other providers.  In October 2011 Kenya entered the war with a land invasion from the south and roughly nine months later in June 2012 formally enrolled their Kenya Defense Forces fighters in the AMISOM mission for reimbursement. In September of 2012 Kenya AMISIM conducted a successful amphibious landing and joint attack with the Somali National Army and local militia, taking over the lucrative port at Kismayo, a regional charcoal and sugar smuggling venue that was controlled by al Shabaab and had been their key urban center since they were replaced from Mogadishu in 2011. Kismayo is capital of the Jubaland region that Kenya has long seen as a potential buffer beyond its own underdeveloped and ethnic Somali frontier. At present, Jubaland’s nascent regional government, led by former local warlord, is negotiating the possibility of resuming cooperation with the nascent Somali Federal Government, successor to the TFG, and is to hold a presidential election in August. Kenyan forces over the years have suffered significant, but officially obscured, losses in major attacks on two of their positions, but have generally avoided any sustained pace of conflict in supporting the regional Jubaland administration. Smuggling reportedly continues to be lucrative and shared by the KDF with al-Shabaab and non-al-Shabaab Jubaland Somalis. Kenyans at home have suffered high profile terrorist attacks from al-Shabaab and its supporters from both countries and the Kenyan “frontier region” seems to be more contested than at any time in the last 40 years, although political devolution seems to provide some examples of integration-supportive development progress. See “Now to that next step: evaluating the Kenya Defense Forces role in Somalia and Kenya’s security needs“.

Over the years since 2007 the war has ebbed and flowed on a seemingly sustainable, semi-permanent footing.  Both the recognized government and al-Shabaab have territory and funding and some resilient will even if leadership seem frequently fluid. AMISOM expert and George Washington University Professor Paul Williams has suggested that AMISOM could reasonably hope to pass off to a Somali defense in as little as ten more years, which would mean we are slightly more than half-way through a 22-year mission.

For some reason, there seem to be disruptive elements in recent months aside from the continued high number of suicide bombings and the major January terror attack in Nairobi’s Westlands. First, there seems to be the strange notion that AMISOM should draw down troop numbers now because someone years ago guessed that something more like ten years rather than twenty would be adequate.  This strikes me as quite irresponsible.  Inertia is not a substitute for a strategy and tactics that adjust to interim successes and failures.

Second, the big increase in air strikes. The strikes are not explained other than announcements after each in which al-Shabaab fighters are said to have been killed and that the strikes were in support of operations of the Somali National Army and/or AMISOM or protecting our troops supporting same.  Reportedly we only have around 500 “warfighters” of our own deployed so it is the volume of air strikes rather than personnel that represent a significant change and raise the question why?

Sometimes, the question of the deployment of 500 American warfighters can achieve major political resonance with the United States–such as the recent back and forth within the Administrations about residual deployment numbers for eastern Syria.  Others, as in the case of Somalia seem nearly invisible.

Reading through the AFRICOM public communications, one gets the impression that the Command has a concern to re-assure our African “partners” (“partner” in this context means any government in the Area of Responsibility that is not off limits for reason of some egregious human rights situation or other policy matter that will agree to let us help them with training and capacity building in return for access and cooperation) that we are not going to abandon them to their “violent extremists” as we are calling the various Islamist guerrilla forces that use terrorism among their insurgency toolkits. 

The Trump Administration has announced that it is re-orienting American National Defense Strategy toward defending against major power competitors (i.e. Russia and China) rather than the “violent extremists”.  The timing may seem worrying to African defense leaders since the “violent extremist” problem is significantly worse in many areas now than when AFRICOM started in 2008, just as a recent CSIS report has documented what we all know casually: the situation has worsened globally (“Despite nearly two decades of U.S.-led counterterrorism operations, there are nearly four times as many Sunni Islamic militants today as there were on September 11, 2001.“)

In the case of AFRICOM, the official “MILSPEAK” term for a ten percent drawdown in American forces in Africa associated with the new National Defense Strategy is “Optimization”.  (One could suggest that this is the defense assistance analog to USAID’s “Self Reliance” focus coinciding with the Trump Administrations budget proposals to dramatically cut assistance budgets while increasing overall defense spending.)  Of course we are all in favor of being optimal, and self-reliant, just like we all want to be best, but these kind of words mean different things to different people, especially when used as public diplomacy labels to win support for changes in policy.

Could increasing air strikes seem to someone in the process in Washington a way to “show commitment” to fighting al-Shabaab even as our global posture shifts?  Could they indicate concerns of more al-Queda related transnational terrorists coming in with the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria or otherwise?  Or if AMISOM is going to be allowed to draw down is there a desire to substitute air strikes or expedite the pace of fighting to keep al-Shabaab from waiting out AMISOM before the Somalia National Army is capable?  These are all just hypotheticals for me as an American not employed or contracted by my government to be personally involved beyond paying the taxes and preparing my children for the debt load.

Part of the challenge with Somalia is that we are not ready, at least yet, to acknowledge being “at war” even though there is not any serious factual debate about the fact that we are and have been.  The fact that we are fighting is not officially secret, but neither are we open about it.  We are not seeking public support in either the United States or in East Africa for what we are doing since we are willing to talk about it only in a way that is patently condescending rather than inviting engagement.

I have always wondered to what extent the war effort on Somalia, and the decision not to talk about it, hamstrung Ambassador Ranneberger and others who were supervising our democracy assistance and election preparation in Kenya. And once I eventually saw recently through FOIA that by April 2017 the Ambassador was describing a new approach of “building capital” with Kibaki rather than pushing reforms as per the older USAID program I would inherit within a few weeks, I am left with the heightened collaboration with Kenya during those initial months after the Ethiopian invasion as the most obvious change in facts that could explain the Kenya policy change. Was our failure in election assistance in Kenya with its devastating consequences facilitated by an unwillingness to discuss and account for Ethiopia and Somalia policy overlaps? If so, are we facing this kind of risk again as we escalate an air campaign without discussing why?

I am hoping that somewhere in my Government someone has come up with a new strategy for this war and that it went up the military and ultimately civilian chain-of-command before we started this escalated air campaign. The other possibility is pure self-perpetuating institutional “mission creep” which would be disturbing and irresponsible:

The escalation of airstrikes, as well as the introduction of manned gunships, has transformed the Defense Department’s Africa Command, based in Germany, into a war-fighting element akin to Central Command, which directs the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Africa Command, which was created only in 2007, has stressed that its role on the continent is to focus on training and equipping allied troops on the continent, but the rise in strikes points to a change in both posture and mission. Current and former American officials previously told The Times that there wasn’t one clear reason for the increase, but they noted that the drawdown of American military operations elsewhere in the world has given Africa Command more drones and gunships to use in Somalia. The loosening of regulations under the Trump administration on using force in the country has also contributed to the rise.

See “At War: This New Generation of Weapons Could Mean More Covert Airstikes Around the World”, March 27, 2017, NY Times Magazine.

 See “Somalia and the Limits of U.S. Bombing“, a prescient warning from Jon Temin, now of Freedom House, early in the Trump administration.

For the KDF role, see “Why an open-ended military campaign in Somalia may prove to be very expensive“, Andrew J. Franklin, Business Daily Africa, Dec. 7, 2011.

For background please start with Kenyan writer Rasna Warah’s “War Crimes: How Warlords, Politicians, Foreign Governments and Aid Agencies Conspired to Create a Failed State in Somalia” and the recent “Inside al-Shabaab; The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally” by Haron Maruf and Dan Joseph, reviewed here in Hiiran Online.

MILSPEAK will never die; and a COMBATANT COMMAND may never be great at Public Diplomacy – AFRICOM and a “Failed Communication”

When General Thomas Waldhauser, the outgoing AFRICOM Commander, went before the Senate Armed Services Committee (“SASC”) for public testimony on the AFRICOM Annual Posture Statement relating to the legislative budget process–a performative function for the Senators and the Senate and the Military–someone seems to have failed to scrub the presentation with an appreciation for how it would look to use an “infographic” to publicly describe to the world–especially to interested citizens in the 53 “partner” states of the AFRICOM Area of Operations (“AOR”)–one of the “U.S. strategic interests in Africa” as to “decrease potential for Africa to become a failed continent”.

Some of us who are “olds” (surely this term is a bit insensitive 🧐) and have spent at least some of our formative years before the pervasiveness of global public communications seem to forget that we Americans live in a global fishbowl of our own making.

General Waldhauser will have spent his career with military electronic communications but will have climbed some ranks before civilian application reached the point that “public” in Washington was automatically realtime “public” nearly everywhere.

Security issues, especially terrorism and civil unrest, have cross-border components that may be magnified by the large number of independent countries in the geographic areas involved, but this sort of loose, broad brush talk that might be useful for selling a budget in a competitive bureaucratic marketplace is embarrassing and counterproductive from the standpoint of official communications and “public diplomacy” because it makes AFRICOM look out of touch and patronizing.

In this way, AFRICOM seems to have accidentally put itself at cross purposes in communications with what is supposed to be the “New Africa Strategy” as announced by the National Security Advisor that is intended to reflect a shift of emphasis to American trade and investment with and in African countries. Since the end of the Cold War we have focused on securing the global “lanes of trade”, especially the world’s only “blue water Navy”, facilitating trade between China as well as India, Japan, the EU and others and African countries, without much real policy focus on our own economic participation beyond aid and philanthropy.

Now that China is so much richer, seems to be re-doubling domestic repression and investing heavily in quickly building out both traditional and “new technology” military tools, while leaning on our longstanding allies in Southeast Asia and showing other geopolitical ambitions, we wish to increase our own economic participation in Africa’s growth for the kind of normal geopolitical reasons that we had de-emphasized in recent years.

In competing against the United States, as well as against Japan, Europe and the UK and other more developed democratic powers in Africa, the PRC naturally wants to sell the idea that the Chinese Communist Party offers some sort of South-South mutual respect to African borrowers and customers in spite of its huge actual size and command structure and the way it treats its own ethnic minorities. Whereas the United States Government has the task not only of assuring African markets of our respect and compatibility, but also of encouraging and persuading, rather than directing, U.S. domiciled companies and investors to go take on risk and invest in African countries.

So clumsy negative hyperbole is not the thing we are looking for here. I have a distaste for some of the slick overproduced happy talk “success stories” that get funded within the rubric of “development assistance” and we need straight honesty from our military leaders about the status of wars we are fighting, but we should avoid being carelessly negative when expressing our aspirations.

I do think on this one that the buck really ought to stop with General Waldhauser — he himself in his many-hatted role should have personally known better and not stepped in that hole. Much of the articulated reason to have AFRICOM–as opposed to not having AFRICOM–was that it was to be a “different type of Command” which integrated personnel from the State Department and USAID directly into its structure to be better at things like diplomacy than the Commands dating to the Cold War, presumably based on lessons learned.

UPDATE: Sept. 8

Investigative reporting from Amanda Sperber in The Nation : “Inside the secretive US air campaign in Somalia“.

From the Longwar Journal (Foundation for Defense of Democracies): “US military intensifies airstrikes against al Shabaab in Somalia“.