Trouble Ahead in East Africa
In March of this year at a training camp 120 miles north of Mogadishu, more than a hundred Al-Shabaab fighters were massing in preparation for an attack against soldiers from the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM) and the American military advisors embedded with them. As the fighters congregated and prepared, their camp was targeted by multiple American aircraft and destroyed in a barrage of missile fire. This attack, described by the Defense Department as a “Defensive Fires,” was one of the highest profile incidents in the United States’ ongoing support of stability operations in Somalia and a strong signal of escalating involvement in the nine yearlong peacekeeping operation. The growing American operational involvement in AMISOM is occurring as two of the largest troop contributing countries, Kenya and Uganda, openly question whether to continue supporting the peacekeeping operation or exit and leave a tremendous security gap in in the fragile country. Taken together, both factors could lead to a future where American involvement in Somalia greatly resembles Iraq and Syria, with the United States military carrying out operations rather than merely supporting them.
Unlike the American led combat advising operations in Syria and Iraq, where there is consistent reporting of American forces “taking the gloves off” against Islamic State fighters, there is little official clarity or reporting on the growing involvement of U.S. military personnel in Somalia. The U.S. military has been involved in combat advising since 2007, but was only formally acknowledged by the Defense Department in 2014, at which time it was stressed that American service members were “not in combat.” The origin of the Defense Department using “Defensive Fires” or similar terms against Al-Shabaab came last summer just before President Obama made his historic trip to East Africa. In that first “Defensive Fires,” American aircraft attacked a large gathering of Al-Shabaab forces in the southern Somali city of Barawe.
“Defensive Fires,” and similar terms in the context of U.S. support to AMISOM, currently describes at least two different types of operations. First is the defense of American and AMISOM partners from Al-Shabaab attacks that are being planned and prepared for future execution. The second type of operation associated with a “Defensive Fires” occurs when American military embedded with AMISOM forces are directly threatened. This recently occurred west of Mogadishu when AMISOM forces attempted to clear an illegal Al-Shabaab taxation checkpoint. The AMISOM forces were unable to overcome the Al-Shabaab forces manning the checkpoint. American forces, likely under considerable threat, called in an airstrike to defend themselves and their partners. The “Defensive Fires” by American air support was quickly followed by an airstrike by AMISOM forces and the checkpoint was removed. While not directly supporting the AMISOM forces, American aircraft were able to reduce the threat posed to all personnel at the scene.
It should also be noted that these “Defensive Fires” are very different from the high-value targeting missions carried out by the secretive counterterrorism force, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Those missions are focused on targeting senior figures in the terror organization, while these “Defensive Fires” are explicitly targeting the lower level fighters in the Al-Shabaab organization. Much like the high-value targeting missions, the Defense Department rarely discusses these “Defensive Fires” outside of short statements at press briefings or in press releases and has only recently acknowledged them on their website. Interestingly, there are no publicly acknowledged instances of “Defensive Fires” in other combat advising missions within AFRICOM’s area of responsibility, even in other active insurgencies such as those found in the Lake Chad basin and along the Tunisia-Libya border.
The U.S. military’s support of targeting large groups of Al-Shabaab fighters and providing air support to beleaguered AMISOM forces, with embedded American military advisors, is a very serious shift and could put the U.S. into a troubling situation. With the growing involvement of American forces, a challenge similar to Syria and Iraq, where the United States has carried out expanded roles because partner nations and non-state actors are unreliable or incapable of supporting U.S. interests, is intensifying. The current AMISOM force is well stocked with over twenty-two thousand uniformed personnel from more than a dozen African countries. However, the governments of the two largest providers of personnel, Uganda (6,223 personnel) and Kenya (3,664 personnel), have recently begun to question whether they should still participate in AMISOM. In the case of Uganda, representatives have confirmed they will be leaving the mission by December 2017, but have also left the decision open if “something major” occurs. Kenyan leadership has continued to express misgivings on whether their more than three thousand security personnel will continue to support AMISOM in the future. AMISOM dealt with a reduction in 2014, when soldiers from Sierra Leone were recalled back to due to the Ebola crisis affecting West Africa. Those 850 troops were replaced by other troop contributing countries and the mission was continued. However, the loss of nearly forty percent of the entire AMISOM would be incredibly difficult or impossible to replace. Even if other troop contributing countries fill in for the Kenyan and, or Ugandan troops, the withdrawal could absolutely be seen as a strategic victory for Al-Shabaab and hamper efforts to rid Somalia of the terror group.
Uganda’s and/or Kenya’s withdrawal of forces could also lead to other troop contributing countries to withdraw, potentially collapsing the entire effort. The remaining troops would have to be spread further into the country and Al-Shabaab would take advantage of AMISOM’s shifted posture. Al-Shabaab could begin massing even more forces for future attacks and battles where AMISOM forces, with embedded American advisors, are overwhelmed and possibly require air support. Basically, “Defensive Fires” would likely skyrocket as fewer AMISOM forces would have to operate over vast territory and American involvement would have to increase to make up for the lost personnel, rather than allow Al-Shabaab to regain strength and further destabilize the Horn of Africa.
Any exit of forces from Kenya and Uganda would have detrimental consequences for U.S. interests in Somalia and the rest of the Horn of Africa. The U.S. government obviously believes AMISOM needs American military support, and has given it through “Defensive Fires.” While this decision supports tactical efforts of AMISOM, it has also led the U.S. into a more active role in the stabilization of Somalia. If major partners leave, the U.S. will be forced into a different role altogether. Washington could find itself stuck in a dilemma where there are few available partners, is an extremely determined enemy, and the security of a strategically important region hangs in the balance.