President Barack Obama’s administration has intensified a clandestine war in Somalia over the past year, using special operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the Horn of Africa nation.
Hundreds of U.S. troops now rotate through makeshift bases in Somalia, the largest military presence since the United States pulled out of the country after 1993’s Battle of Mogadishu, described in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.
The Somalia campaign, as it is described by U.S. and African officials and international monitors, is partly designed to avoid repeating that debacle, which led to the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers. But it carries risks including more U.S. casualties, botched airstrikes that kill civilians, and the potential for the United States to be drawn even more deeply into a troubled country that has stymied all efforts to fix it.
But the Somalia campaign is a blueprint for warfare — a model the United States now employs across the Middle East and North Africa, from Syria to Libya, despite the president’s stated aversion to American “boots on the ground” in the world’s war zones. This year alone, the United States has carried out airstrikes in seven countries and conducted special operations missions in others.
U.S. officials said the White House had quietly broadened the president’s authority for the use of force in Somalia by allowing airstrikes to protect U.S. and African troops as they combat fighters from al-Shabab, a Somali militant group that has claimed allegiance to al-Qaida.
In its public announcements, the Pentagon sometimes characterizes the operations as “self-defense strikes,” though some analysts have said this rationale has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
America’s role in Somalia has expanded as al-Shabab has become bolder. The group has attacked police headquarters, bombed seaside restaurants, killed Somali generals and stormed heavily fortified bases used by African Union troops.
About 200 to 300 U.S. special operations troops work with soldiers from Somalia and other African nations like Kenya and Uganda to carry out more than a half-dozen raids per month, according to senior U.S. military officials. The operations are a combination of ground raids and drone strikes.
Once ground operations are complete, U.S. troops working with Somali forces often interrogate prisoners at temporary screening facilities, including one in Puntland, a state in northern Somalia, before the detainees are transferred to Somali-run prisons, U.S. military officials said.
The Pentagon has acknowledged only a small fraction of these operations. But even the information released publicly shows an increase this year. The Pentagon has announced 13 ground raids and airstrikes in 2016, including three operations in September — up from five in all of 2015, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. The strikes have killed about 25 civilians and 200 people suspected of being militants, the group found.
Some experts argue that with the administration’s expanded self-defense justification for airstrikes, a greater U.S. presence in Somalia would inevitably lead to an escalation of the air campaign.
“It is clear that U.S. on-the-ground support to Somali security forces and African Union peacekeepers has been stepped up this year,” said Ken Menkhaus, a Somalia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina. “That increases the likelihood that U.S. advisers will periodically be in positions where al-Shabab is about to launch an attack.”
Peter Cook, the Defense Department spokesman, wrote in an email: “The [Defense Department] has a strong partnership with the Somali National Army and [African Union Mission in Somalia] forces from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Burundi operating in Somalia. They have made steady progress pressuring al-Shabab.”
The escalation can be seen in the semiannual notifications that Obama sends to Congress about U.S. conflicts overseas.
The Somalia passage in the June 2015 notification is short, saying U.S. troops “have worked to counter the terrorist threat posed by al-Qaida and associated elements of al-Shabab.”
This June, however, the president told Congress that the United States had become engaged in a more expansive mission.
Besides hunting members of al-Qaida and al-Shabab, the notification said, U.S. troops are in Somalia “to provide advice and assistance to regional counterterrorism forces, including the Somali National Army and African Union Mission in Somalia forces.”
©New York Times