By Col. (Rtd) J M Owuoth
What is the background story?
On 15 January 2021, the 700 United States forces stationed in Somalia withdrew from the country and relocated to US bases in the neighbouring Kenya and Djibouti. This repositioning of the forces following former US president Donald Trump’s earlier directive of reducing US forces presence in various hotspots on the globe. Pentagon has, however, claimed that despite this repositioning, the troops will continue to conduct surveillance in the Somalia and also carry out raids against the Al Shabaab and a smaller cluster of Islamic State fighters in northern Somalia from the bases in Djibouti and Kenya and also the fleet in the Indian Ocean.
What successes would you enumerate for the US forces in Somalia?
Low intensity military operations are delicate and hence it is not accurately possible to enumerate such successes. Some activity might not register immediately as a success but in the long run is likely to have a big positive impact to the overall end state. That aside, the US has been participating in low-intensity operations against Islamist militants in the Somalia theatre since 2011. Most of their operations have largely been through the use of drones targeting Al Shabaab senior and mid-level commanders. US troops have also been providing training for a section the Somali Armed Forces. Understandably too the CIA, as well as US Special Operations Forces personnel have also known to have carried out raids throughout the country. Admittedly, these US airstrikes have definitely resulted in disruptions to Al-Shabaab’s ability to execute and plan operations, restricted their movement as well as impeded their ability to expand operations further. The US forces have also been –probably- providing some intelligence to the AMISOM forces engaging the Al Shabaab.
Is the US troops mid-January withdrawal badly timed?
At face value, the timing is probably not the best. Considering that the Somali presidential elections are scheduled in a few months’ time, neighbouring Ethiopia forces are also involved in some internal engagements, and Al Shabaab militants are still controlling large swathes of the rural countryside. But then, these repositioning of the US forces is probably tied to the political machinations back in the USA and not on the political and tactical landscape unfolding in the horn of Africa region.
The major drawback to the timing though is that the Somali forces as it is now seeming incapable to take over responsibility for the country’s security, especially as the 19,000-strong multinational African Union force is also set to withdraw by the end of this year.
What major Implications do you foresee to Somalia following this withdrawal?
Four issues spring to mind:
- What seems certain, though, is that the brunt of the changes will be borne by Danab, the elite Somali force that the American military formed in 2013 and which has remained well sourced and largely apolitical with a streak of ruthless efficiency against the Al Shabaab. Now, with hundreds of the US troops who trained them leaving Somalia, current and former Danab officers are fearful that diminished American supervision will leave the elite division vulnerable to political interference from the Somali government.
- As the US is stepping out of the country, regional powerful actors are likely to vie for greater influence with Somalia becoming a theatre of regional competition in the Gulf between the competing blocks of Turkey and Qatar on the one side, and Saudi Arabia and UAE on the other. Qatar in particular has recently politically and diplomatically backed Somalia’s current president and has pledged significant economic support, mainly through financial and infrastructural aid. Doha is also moving ahead with the construction of a new port in the central Somalian town of Hobyo.
- The withdrawal could also allow China to fill the void, Beijing could choose to step up its maritime security cooperation with US partners present in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Similarly, the US strong presence in the area has so far prevented Russia from establishing a naval base in the Horn of Africa. However, the current withdrawal could embolden Kremlin’s reported plans of establishing their own base in Somaliland’s port of Berbera.
- Al-Shabaab very much also watches these developments, uses them in their propaganda, so would very much present this as a victory on their part, that they were able to drive out US troops from Somalia.
Overall, the vacuum created by the US withdrawal could render Somalia into an increasingly geopolitically contested arena.
Seeing that there is a new administration has taken over in US, is the withdrawal decision likely to be reversed?
Presently, it remains unclear whether the upcoming Biden administration will reverse the withdrawal decision. But then military operations are constantly being reviewed and adjusted and Somalia’s case will be no exception. It is idle to speculate. What is assured though is that the US is bound to be doing constant threat analysis on the insurgent group and the commitment to dismantling Al-Shabaab’s ability to plot and plan attacks is bound to continue.
What effect is this withdrawal action has on Kenya?
Negligible, it is likely that the KDF troops now under AMISOM will maintain the current posture with added eavesdropping and surveillance capability considering that the bulk of the US operations will be from Kenyan territory.
Trump administration’s decision could leave a disastrous security vacuum and give the Al Shabaab added propaganda bullets. Positively however, the troop withdrawal could represent the beginning of a new policy in Somalia aimed at achieving some kind of political reconciliation and peace negotiations.