On Dec. 4, President Trump ordered most of the approximately 700 U.S. troops out of Somalia. The move wasn’t a full withdrawal, however, as the White House specified the forces will be moved to neighboring countries to continue targeting the al-Shabaab terror group. While addressing the tactical actions our troops would continue to perform in Africa, there was no mention of the strategic justification for our presence—because there is none.
Al-Shabaab is unquestionably a bloodthirsty terror group that doesn’t think twice about killing large numbers of innocent people in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa. As bad as they are, however, they do not pose a threat to America that cannot be handled more effectively by our global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance networks and ability to strike direct threats to our country, regardless of where in the world the threat originates.
Al-Shabaab began as the militant wing of the Union of Islamic Courts in the mid-2000s in Mogadishu. The Congressional Research Service defines the group’s objectives as being to unify “ethnic Somali-inhabited areas of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia under an Islamist government.” Although al-Shabaab has an open affiliation with al-Qaeda, its primary objectives remain local.
To the extent they attack non-Somali targets, the overriding imperative is to attack entities or personnel that target al-Shabaab. They have launched attacks in Uganda, Djibouti, and Kenya against members of the UN-authorized Africa Union Mission in Somalia that regularly fights against al-Shabaab.
In January, al-Shabaab militants attacked the Manda Bay Airfield in Kenya, a military facility the United States uses, killing a U.S. soldier and two civilian contractors. If the American military were not actively conducting combat operations in Africa, al-Shabaab would have no opportunity to harm them.
In a report to Congress last September, the inspector general of the East Africa Counterterrorism Operation claimed al-Shabaab had the “intent” to attack the American homeland but conceded that it “lacks the ability to do so.”
It should be self-evident that it is wholly unnecessary to maintain robust and ongoing combat operations in the vast continent of Africa to launch attacks against a militant group that claims to want to attack the United States but doesn’t have the ability to carry through on its desires. Further, as has so often been the case in America’s inconclusive use of lethal military power since 9/11, the mission in Africa is not militarily attainable.
The U.S. military mission in east Africa is “to disrupt, degrade, and deny victory to al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia in Somalia and neighboring countries.” It says the desired end state of the operation “is one in which terrorist organizations are not able to threaten the U.S. homeland, U.S. persons, international allies or destabilize the region.” Yet those objectives are virtually impossible to attain.
In July 2017, I traveled through a large section of Uganda where the terrorist Kony once called home to his Lord’s Resistance Army. Just two months earlier, Washington and Kampala had formally ceased trying to capture Kony.
The United States had been trying, since 2011, to kill or capture Kony, spending $800 million in the process. During my time there, Ugandan guides took me through the heart of the area where Kony had successfully eluded all efforts to capture him. It was clear why.
The jungles in parts of Africa are dense, have few paved roads, and many areas have no means of communication. In Kenya and Somalia, where al-Shabaab primarily operates, there are large expanses of deserts, mountains, and inhospitable brush country. There are reportedly up to 10,000 members of al-Shabaab, who have proven adept at hiding from authorities. In populated areas, it is virtually impossible to distinguish Somali civilians from al-Shabaab fighters.
Just like we failed to ever find Kony in Uganda, the mission to “degrade” al-Shabaab in east Africa is likewise suffering the same predictable failure. It is time to admit the reality in Somalia—as we did in Uganda in 2017—and end the mission. There is no utility in shuffling our troops to other parts of Africa, as is currently being planned. We need to end the pointless missions and end the fighting, withdrawing our troops back to the United States.
America’s best defense against terror threats—regardless of where in the world they originate—remains our robust global intelligence and strike capacity. Small numbers of troops fighting in the vast African continent will never succeed and will have their lives risked for a mission disconnected from U.S. security. This mission will continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars and periodically cost the lives of our service members. It is time to acknowledge reality and end these conflicts.