The U.S. Shouldn't Turn Back the Clock in Somalia | Opinion

U.S. forces are redeploying to Somalia, reversing a withdrawal initiated in the last days of President Donald Trump's administration. In doing so, the U.S. is turning back the clock and readopting its old counterterrorism strategies. But reinvigorating a war with no tangible benefit to the American public should prompt skepticism.

First, there's no clear link between this mission and the security of the American people. Somalia's sole geostrategic value is its proximity to the Bab el-Mandeb, a chokepoint near the Red Sea important to international trade. But the threat to shipping in this sea lane is overstated and at historic lows. Moreover, the presence of U.S. ground forces doesn't counter this threat. Ground forces can conduct raids on terror cells and advise and assist local authorities, but this doesn't translate into diminished capabilities among terrorist groups. The base of support for these groups remains unchanged, so military success won't always produce strategic success.

To be sure, Al-Shabaab, the main terrorist group in Somalia, should be combatted diplomatically. But the group's aims are local, not transnational. Because Americans aren't in the crosshairs, the risk to servicemembers isn't commensurate with this threat, nor are the high costs of employing U.S. ground forces and accompanying air support.

Foreign policy analysts often employ the "safe havens" argument, namely that security vacuums will enable terrorists to strike worldwide. But this ignores both the capabilities and motives of groups like Al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab's membership draws nearly exclusively from the Horn of Africa, and its ability to threaten attacks is limited to this region.

The cure may be worse than the disease. By employing U.S. forces directly, Washington runs the risk that militant attacks which would otherwise be internally-focused will spread to include U.S. troops or American personnel. Furthermore, it encourages Al-Shabaab to draw closer to explicitly anti-American groups like Al-Qaeda, which it aligned with in 2012. Al-Qaeda had no natural home in Somalia, but much like in Iraq, the U.S. troop presence enabled this alien group to gain traction.

The whack-a-mole strategy used to decapitate and attrite terror groups is also neither effective nor economical. Hundreds of strikes over the last two decades have not resulted in the collapse of Al-Shabaab. Bureaucratic inertia and the bias of "do somethingism" have pushed policymakers to employ a strategy that is politically salient but decoupled from the realities of what military power can achieve. If Washington wants to secure the minimal American interests in the region, it needs to reckon with these realities.

People walk next to a destroyed house
People walk next to a destroyed house and the wreckage of a car following an explosion provoked by Al-Shabaab militants during an attack on a police station on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia, on Feb. 16, 2022. HASSAN ALI ELMI/AFP via Getty Images

What should be done?

Policymakers should first recognize that a light footprint strategy isn't a magic formula for success. While a light footprint is better than a heavy footprint in diminishing costs of blood and treasure, it employs the same underlying logic as a heavy footprint. This logic suggests that sufficient military power will defeat terrorist groups or will undermine them to the point of irrelevance.

A few assumptions underpin this strategy. First, that U.S. power is indispensable. Second, that U.S. military power can deliver the results we desire. These are both flawed. Local populations, being the most important potential asset for terrorist groups, are not persuaded by U.S. smart bombs or special forces raids. Moreover, Al-Shabaab is not ascendant. They are targeted not just by Somali forces, but by Ethiopian and Kenyan forces as well. U.S. power is substitutable.

U.S. military power is also not tailored to this threat. As counterinsurgency doctrine lays out, combating a nonstate actor is about fostering legitimacy. This is not something that special forces operators, advisors, or air support can provide. It requires making inroads with the population, which the U.S. needs to leave to Somalia and its neighbors.

The U.S. mission in Somalia is a peripheral concern with no strategic value. Diplomatic power should be the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa. We've had a year to see how withdrawal from Somalia affected U.S. security. Americans weren't attacked, the region didn't collapse and the sky didn't fall. U.S. decision makers should recommit to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia and resist the urge to rehash failed strategies.

Geoff LaMear is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.