U.S. reinserts troops in Somalia after long-awaited elections are completed

On May 15, Somalia completed its election process, selecting Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as the new president. Sheikh previously served as president of Somalia from 2012 until 2017 and defeated the incumbent President Farmajo in a long-awaited and contentious election. 

Somalia’s elections were originally scheduled for Feb. 8, 2021. However, the date passed with no elections, sparking mass protests within Mogadishu.

President Farmajo, also known as Mohamed Abdullahi, was deemed illegitimate by his opponents due to the delayed elections that left him without a mandate, sparking continued disputes between the factions. These disputes turned violent on occasion and security forces associated with Farmajo or the opposition frequently engaged in an attempt to secure their party’s interests.

For the past year, Somali elections have been scheduled and rescheduled multiple times, with politicians on all sides accusing each other of corruption and manipulation of the electoral process. The electoral delays have been exacerbated by Shabaab terrorist attacks, as the Al Qaeda branch has aimed to disrupt the process in order to demonstrate its influence. The most notable of these attacks was the suicide attack on March 24, in which Shabaab killed dozens in a polling center in Beledwayne. In its statements, the jihadist organization decried the democratic process, proudly claiming credit for killing the “apostate officials.” 

The election of Hassan Sheikh marks the end of Farmajo’s rule in Mogadishu. Farmajo leaves office with a mixed record, presiding over tremendous internal strife and Shabaab’s rapid expansion. His tenure saw an intensification of infighting among the highest levels of Somali government, with the drama peaking following his Dec. 2021 attempted suspension of Prime Minister Roble. The use of armed forces to secure political interests and attempt to sway the electorate undermined Somalia’s counterinsurgency effort against Shabaab, enabling the jihadists to expand.

The incoming president will not inherit an enviable position, as Shabaab continues to operate throughout the country. Despite special forces raids by the elite, US-trained Danab units, the SNA has proven unable to hold most of southern Somalia. In early May, Shabaab launched one of its largest attacks in years against an AU base in Middle Shabelle occupied by Burundian troops, killing between 30 and 170 soldiers. This raid, preceded by a large suicide car bomb (VBIED or vehicle-borne improvised explosive device), illustrated the insurgents’ lasting ability to challenge the Somali government and their AU backers for control of the state. 

Hassan Sheikh, the first Somali president to serve a second term, also must manage the transition of the African Union mission that will see the 22,000-troop coalition withdraw by 2024. AU troops have been instrumental in staving off Shabaab advances while the SNA has struggled to contain the threat; however, with the shift to ATMIS, AU troops will be pulled from combat roles into a purely training mission. 

During his first term, Hassan Sheikh forged closer relations with Western and regional partners, which Somalia hopes will help offset the loss of AU forces. These ties are evident in the resumption of the U.S. deployment to Somalia announced by the Biden administration just one day after Hassan Sheikh was elected. 

In 2020, the Trump Administration pulled special forces from Somalia, where the 700 American troops In country trained the SNA, accompanied Somali troops on select operations, and collected intelligence for drone strikes. This decision was made against the recommendation of military advisors, who asserted that withdrawing American forces would jeopardize Somalia’s ability to counter the Shabaab threat, while also putting American troops in harm’s way. From the withdrawal until Biden’s reversal, American troops continued to train Somali forces periodically, operating from outside the country in what AFRICOM officials described as dangerous “commuting to work.” 

On May 16, following the conclusion of the Somali election, the Biden administration authorized US forces to redeploy to Somalia to resume its training mission in person. The deployment will consist of approximately 450 special forces, a decline from the original 700 deployed prior to 2020. The decision, made in early May but not announced until Somalia had elected its new president, aims to enable “a more effective fight against Al Shabaab”. 

On May 21, General Stephen Townsend, the head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), met with the newly elected Somali president to discuss how the partners can work together to mitigate the threat posed by Shabaab. Hassan Sheikh voiced his support for the return of American troops in Somalia, inviting drone strikes against Shabaab leaders and forces. 

Though the administration’s redeployment of troops is a welcome acknowledgement of the threat posed by Shabaab and the American stake in Somalia’s stability, the estimated 450 troops for training and advising is likely insufficient to make a critical impact in Somalia’s long war.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. deployed thousands of troops for this purpose over 20 years but was unable to sufficiently arm the Afghan security forces to repel the Taliban. Further, during the U.S. deployment to Somalia from 2017 until 2020, Shabaab expanded its territorial control, indicating that the 700 U.S. troops were insufficient to degrade and defeat the jihadist insurgents. With considerably less troops, it is unlikely that the U.S. deployment will reverse the current trend of Shabaab expansion. 

The White House also authorized the targeting of a dozen Shabaab leaders in its May 16 announcement. Since Biden took office, the U.S. has conducted five confirmed strikes against Shabaab in Somalia, mostly in defense of local partner forces. In its most recent drone strike in Feb. 2022, the U.S. struck Shabaab forces in conjunction with SNA assaults against Shabaab bases in Middle Shabelle, killing at least three militants. 

Under the May 16 authorization, the US will resume counterterrorism operations in Somalia to relieve pressure on the beleaguered SNA. Voice of America’s Harun Maruf reports that Biden aims to eliminate Shabaab leadership through these strikes, as opposed to the low-level foot soldiers targeted under the previous administration’s strikes. Along with killing Shabaab leadership, U.S. drones are critical for aerial surveillance and intelligence collection in Somalia which can improve the SNA’s ability to effectively respond to the rising Shabaab threat. 

Ultimately, the impact of the US redeployment will depend on how committed the administration is to the war in Somalia. If it deems Shabaab to be a critical threat and commits adequate resources and effort to bolstering the Somali government and degrading the jihadist threat, the addition of American trainers and resumed counterterrorism operations is more likely to help turn the tide in the SNA’s favor.

However, if the U.S. is content to merely have a presence in country and kill the occasional insurgent commander without devising a viable strategy to eradicate Shabaab and stabilize Somalia, this mission will simply become another half-hearted attempt to win the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ 

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