President Trump has requested plans to withdraw US troops from Somalia, where the US military is fighting al Qaeda’s local affiliate, al Shabaab. Among al Qaeda’s affiliates, al Shabaab is the one most ambitiously determined to start conducting external terror attacks. And among US counterterrorism deployments, the US mission in Somalia has remained a small deployment focused on a specific and necessary mission. Al Shabaab will be quick to capitalize on a US withdrawal that will no doubt cause US regional partners to rush for the exits. A short-sighted political decision to pull out of Somalia now would harm America’s future security.
Al Shabaab is a key node in al Qaeda’s global network that remains strong across all fronts in Somalia and poses a growing threat. It has about 4,000 fighters and a large local support base — including populations it forcibly controls — in south-central Somalia and Mogadishu, the capital. Militarily, its use of improvised explosive devices was the highest ever in 2019 and about a third higher than the previous year. Financially, al Shabaab generated about $13 million in revenue from December 2019 through August 2020. Most concerning, al Shabaab has serious aspirations to join the global jihad. Recently, the group sought to train operatives to fly planes, reminiscent of al Qaeda’s 9/11 attack, and a few years ago, it copied the laptop bomb from al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. In January, al Shabaab killed three Americans in a brazen attack in Kenya.
The US deployment to Somalia is small and shares its mission with numerous local and international partners. Some 650 to 800 US troops are in Somalia to partner with local Somali and regional African security forces and to conduct counterterrorism operations. US Africa Command (AFRICOM) has built an elite Somali counterterrorism unit — the Danab Advanced Infantry Brigade — within the Somali National Army, and US Special Operations Forces advise, assist, and accompany the Danab in counter-al Shabaab operations. Other foreign security forces — the UK, EU, Italy, Turkey — contribute to the broader effort to build the capacity of the Somali Federal Government to secure its own territory while the US has remained focused on targeting al Shabaab.
The very real challenges in Somalia and limited progress against al Shabaab cannot be ignored. The US temporarily suspended aid to Somalia’s military in 2017 due to corruption. The country’s politics remain dysfunctional. America’s partners in Somalia are wavering in their commitments, many having spent time and money trying to fix the country with little progress to note. The African Union Mission in Somalia has already begun a scheduled drawdown that aims to hand security responsibilities to Somali forces still ill-prepared to take them on. Meanwhile, al Shabaab remains capable of destabilizing Mogadishu and is setting conditions to disrupt Somalia’s upcoming elections.
Despite these challenges, abandoning the fight against al Shabaab in Somalia is a mistake. A US drawdown will cause other partners to withdraw, mirroring similarly reduced commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Al Shabaab will overwhelm the remaining local security forces and possibly collapse the weak Somali government. A strengthened al Shabaab imperils regional security. Al Shabaab is already a well-established threat to Kenya, including the country’s tourism industry. Al Shabaab has also signaled its intent to target Ethiopia, which may become vulnerable due to domestic turmoil.
Withdrawing from Somalia will also harm US interests in the great-power competition. Counterterrorism partnerships also help keep key states aligned with the US, and by deserting these partners the US cedes regional presence and influence in the Horn of Africa. China, which opened its first international military base in Djibouti in 2017, will seize the opportunity to add to its gains along the region’s strategic global waterways.
Rather than bringing troops home from Somalia prematurely, President Trump should shift the US approach to one that can defeat al Shabaab. This shift should repurpose the light military footprint already present in the region to support a civilian-led strategy focused on filling Somalia’s governance deficit. Establishing effective governance in Somalia is key to the lasting defeat of al Shabaab by denying it the ability to strengthen again. This way, when US troops do leave Somalia, they do not have to return.
This article first appeared at the American Enterprise Institute.