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Somalia remains one of the most politically destabilized countries in the world. It has been ranked the most fragile state seven times over the last ten years by the Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index. The fledgling government’s inadequate ability to provide security and functioning institutions for the country’s 11 million citizens threatens its legitimacy and provides ample opportunities for insurgencies such as al-Shabaab (“The Youth”) to proliferate and fill the void in governance. Widespread violence and sporadic famine since 1988 have resulted in over a million internally displaced persons and refugees. What’s more, the country’s distinct and decentralized clan culture exacerbates nation-building efforts and calls into question the utility and practicality of a centralized national government.

Needless to say, the United States has significant strategic interests in Somalia, aptly named “the world’s longest running collapsed state” by Davidson College’s Ken Menkhaus. The country’s status as a hotbed of instability and Islamic extremism poses clear and convincing security threats to the United States and its allies within and around the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. Given the complex operational environment in Somalia and the U.S. public’s aversion to the prospect of conventional “boots on the ground,” the choice to deploy Special Operations Forces (SOF) in pursuit of established political objectives has proven wise.

Working by, with, and through forces from both the Somali National Army (SNA) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), U.S. SOF in recent years have done a commendable job relegating al-Shabaab from a full-blown insurgency that once controlled wide swaths of territory in southern Somalia to a still-threatening, but much more manageable, terrorist organization. Attaining the ultimate political end goal—sufficiently degrading al-Shabaab while building the credibility of the Somali government so that it can govern independently without external support from AMISOM—is within reach, but will require a whole-of-government approach that goes beyond what support SOF are able to provide.

SOF are legally authorized under Title 10, Section 167 of the U.S. Code to conduct myriad activities particularly well suited to achieve the current political objectives in Somalia. These specialized activities include, but are not limited to foreign internal defense, counterterrorism, foreign humanitarian assistance, special reconnaissance, direct action, and civil affairs. Achieving U.S. operational and strategic goals within an acceptable timeframe will require SOF to engage in all these activities simultaneously while managing to leave as light a footprint as possible. Indeed, a recent assessment of the promising campaign against al-Shabaab suggests SOF are doing just that, through what the authors call a “tailored engagement” strategy entailing three core components.

The first involves improving the capacity of soldiers within the SNA to successfully repel insurgents and gain credibility as a legitimate force in the eyes of the population. SOF has been credited with having been instrumental in developing Danab (“Lightning”), a small but elite Somali commando force whose recruits are trained and advised for months at a time within the capital, Mogadishu, to bolster security force capabilities and ultimately relieve the necessary presence of AMISOM and U.S. operators as soon as possible. Ideally, trained Danab fighters will share their knowledge over time to the rest of the SNA, which hopes to have upwards of 18,000 fighters by 2018.

The second main element of “tailored engagement” has been close collaboration with AMISOM, the principal multilateral institution that has provided military assistance to Somalia since 2007 under the auspices of the African Union and United Nations. Established with just 8,000 soldiers, AMISOM now includes roughly 22,000 individuals from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda. Recent reports reveal the United States has supplied the force with nearly $1 billion for security assistance support. U.S. SOF supposedly played a helpful role in advising Kenyan SOF to conduct “several complex, joint amphibious assaults on the Somali port of Kismayo” during Operation Indian Ocean in 2014 and retake the strategically crucial town of Baardheere during Operation Jubba Corridor a year later. 

Finally, U.S. SOF have embedded with allied forces to conduct direct action operations, or raids, intended to surgically neutralize high-profile adversaries—mainly al-Shabaab affiliates, but also individuals with ties to al-Qaeda and ISIL. While the exact numbers remain classified, The New York Times estimated there were around 200-300 U.S. SOF in Somalia in 2016 who engaged in roughly six raids per month on average. This escalated campaign, often supplemented with U.S. drone strikes, comes in response to what has been perceived as an emboldened al-Shabaab that has fundamentally shifted operational methods and goals. Some experts maintain that al-Shabaab's substantial loss in influence and territory over the past few years has compelled it to pursue a strategy aimed at harassing and discrediting AMISOM and the Somali Federal Government (terror-based), rather than focusing on increasing territorial control over parts of southern Somalia (insurgency-based).

In late May, President Trump decided to further escalate the so-called “shadow war” established by the Obama administration by “designating Somalia as an ‘area of active hostilities.’” In effect, this gives the Pentagon greater flexibility and leeway in deciding whom to target, and when and where to target them—though Washington must still give final approval. Importantly, policymakers must be wary of becoming over-reliant on these raids for at least two reasons.

First, one risks falling into the “Afghan trap,” whereby the war at hand becomes overly Americanized, with U.S. forces ending up doing more and more leading, and less advising and assisting. If SOF are utilized correctly, success would ultimately mean “working themselves out of a job”—that is, indigenous forces would eventually be able to operate on their own.

Second, SOF are elite units that should not be mass produced. Not only is this impractical (it takes a long time to train such forces), U.S. casualties that would inevitably occur may prove counterproductive to achieving the desired political goal. When U.S. Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed in early May of this year, the story spread like wildfire in the mainstream media, with the vast majority of outlets mentioning that it was the first U.S. casualty to take place in Somalia since the 1993 Black Hawk Down disaster, which occurred under the Clinton administration. Approving more raids runs the risk of outraging the U.S. public, which has the power to cut short even the most ideally designed national, regional, or global strategy.

On balance, the “tailored engagement” strategy has thus far worked well in weakening al-Shabaab “by using only a small number of U.S. forces, which did not expose American soldiers to the risk of heavy casualties or expand the U.S. military footprint to levels that might spur nationalist or religious blowback.” However, pursuing a military strategy alone is insufficient.

If the United States is to achieve its strategic goals in and around Somalia, it must first acknowledge that while neutralizing al-Shabaab is a priority, it is one of many; even if the group is eliminated, violence may continue unabated or even increase. An analysis of al-Shabaab published by the Joint Special Operations University makes this claim, acknowledging that “there are other thorny challenges beyond the insurgency that also must be addressed before the country will become stable.” The removal of al-Shabaab would not necessarily help the Somali Federal Government gain much-needed credibility from the public, or automatically raise its abysmal standard of living, a result of pervasive corruption, a lack of rule of law, and essentially non-functioning public institutions.

Fortunately, U.S. SOF can play a critical role in this effort, too, so long as operations are bolstered by an integrated, whole-of-government approach. Besides counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and direct action expertise, SOF are also legally authorized to conduct civil affairs operations and administer foreign humanitarian assistance. In 2011 the Transitional Federal Government had a unique opportunity during the throes of the nationwide famine to show its competence at governing and express that it cared about its population by distributing food and medicine. Instead, however, corruption and ineptitude reared their ugly heads: 260,000 died of starvation, and nearly a million were displaced.

As recently as early March, AFRICOM Commander Thomas Waldhauser provided testimony to the Senate Committee on Armed Services warning of another possible famine in Somalia that is already affecting 6.2 million individuals. The Somali Federal Government, with the assistance of allies and U.S. entities, should capitalize on this opportunity.

It has been determined that current U.S. SOF operations taking place in Somalia are suitable, relatively acceptable, and feasible. SOF legal authorities and expertise align well with strategic objectives and operational needs. So long as SOF are not mass produced, the war is not overly Americanized, and operators are given sufficient time to build institutions and popular trust, their presence in Somalia and the Horn of Africa generally will continue to help the United States attain its strategic end goals.

Crucially, however, other relevant non-military agencies such as USAID, State, CIA, and other federal agencies must be properly integrated into a whole-of-government approach so that the current administration is well positioned to render Somalia—and by extension, the United States—safer and more prosperous than ever before. 


Luke Drabyn is a current master's student at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 2015 and later spent a year in Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar studying and publishing on transnational human trafficking policy. His work has appeared in NewsweekQuartz, and blogs owned by the Council on Foreign Relations and Atlantic Council. 

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