Earlier this month, reports emerged that U.S. President Donald Trump had asked his senior advisors to devise a plan for the withdrawal of the 650 to 800 U.S. forces stationed in Somalia. This directive cast a striking contrast with Trump’s prior track record of supporting the expansion of U.S. military involvement in Somalia. For example, in March 2017, Trump approved a Pentagon proposal to expand the scope of U.S. airstrikes against al-Shabab in central and southern Somalia. In 2019, the United States carried out 63 airstrikes on al-Shabab targets. Between January and May this year, it conducted 40. That’s a drastic increase from the 14 strikes that U.S. President Barack Obama authorized in 2016.
Trump’s about-face might well be electoral theater, not an indication of real policy shift. After all, the president announced the drawdown of 2,200 U.S. troops from Iraq in September and recently pledged to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Christmas. Nevertheless, senior Somali and Kenyan officials immediately expressed alarm at Trump’s willingness to even entertain the idea of U.S. withdrawal. Shortly after the directive was made public, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed emphasized the central role the U.S.-Somalia partnership plays in stabilizing the Horn of Africa. On Oct. 18, Kamau Macharia, Kenya’s former ambassador to the United Nations and current foreign-affairs principal secretary, opined that a U.S. exit “will worsen the already fragile situation in the country.”
These expressions of concern are well founded. A U.S. withdrawal from Somalia could strengthen al-Shabab and leave the Somali Armed Forces without a reliable external partner on counterterrorism. The abdication of U.S. leadership could also create opportunities for China and Russia, and increase Somalia’s vulnerability to the destabilizing ambitions of regional powers in the Middle East.
In spite of frequent U.S. counterterrorism strikes in Somalia, al-Shabab’s capacity for destruction has steadily grown. The group’s terrorist activities have resulted in at least 4,000 civilian deaths in the country since 2010, and more than 3,000 of those deaths have come since 2015. As Somalia’s presidential elections, which are scheduled for early 2021, draw nearer, al-Shabab has carried out more frequent strikes on civilians. On Aug. 16, for example, it took control of the beachside Elite Hotel in Mogadishu, killing at least 10 civilians. In the week from Sept. 11 to Sept. 18, al-Shabab carried out more than a dozen attacks. The terrorist organization has also crowded out rival groups in Somalia, and it is aligned with al Qaeda.
An abrupt U.S. withdrawal from Somalia could help al-Shabab achieve its goals of territorial expansion in Somalia and spreading its reach across borders. So far, the U.S. military presence has prevented al-Shabab from capitalizing on Somalia’s intraregional divisions, which cause the Somali Armed Forces to divert scarce resources towards fighting regional militias. U.S. training has also helped the Somali special forces achieve notable military successes against al-Shabab, such as the liberation of towns in the Lower Shabelle region over the past month.
Meanwhile, there is the rest of the region to consider. On Jan. 5, al-Shabab attacked a U.S. base in Manda Bay, Kenya, killing three Americans. The severity of al-Shabab’s threat to Kenya’s security reportedly motivated the U.S. Department of Defense to consider carrying out drone strikes in there, but the idea was rebuffed by the country’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta. Al-Shabab also poses a long-term risk to the security of Uganda and Tanzania, and it has even deployed mercenaries to train Ansar al-Sunna militants in northern Mozambique. Given al-Shabab’s transnational reach, a U.S. withdrawal from Somalia could precipitate a broader collective security crisis in eastern Africa.
The risks of al-Shabab’s expansion are compounded further by the probability that the Somali Armed Forces could find themselves without an external partner that can fill the shoes of the United States. Although France backed Kenya’s efforts to combat al-Shabab in Somalia in 2011, it remains overwhelmingly focused on stemming the rising tide of political violence in the Sahel. Britain trains Somali National Army personnel in the southwestern Somali city of Baidoa. However, Britain lacks experience carrying out U.S.-style drone strikes against al-Shabab.
As France and the United Kingdom are unlikely to fill the void, the Somali National Army could appeal for increased support from the African Union (AU), which has 21,000 troops in Somalia. However, the AU’s commitment to military intervention in Somalia is uncertain. Since 2017, the union has called for the handover of counterterrorism responsibilities to the military, and in October, the AU reiterated its plan to withdraw militarily from Somalia in 2021. That means Somalia could face a double shock of a U.S. and AU military drawdown at a time when al-Shabab is ascendant.
A U.S. withdrawal from Somalia could also have far-reaching geopolitical implications. China, Russia, and Middle Eastern regional powers are likely beneficiaries from a U.S. departure. China has close relations with Somalia and is concerned about rising instability in the Horn of Africa. In February, al-Shabab attacked a Chinese construction crew on Kenya’s Lamu-Garsen road, and a U.S. withdrawal from Somalia could increase the frequency of these attacks.
Chinese state-aligned private security companies are exploring commercial opportunities in Ethiopia and Djibouti, and Beijing could deploy private security contractors to defend its infrastructure investments from al-Shabab. Via its naval base in Djibouti, China could also deepen its maritime security cooperation with U.S. partners, such as Saudi Arabia, who are concerned about al-Shabab’s threat to Red Sea commercial activity. These actions could give China an advantage in its competition with the U.S. for hegemony over the Red Sea. Unlike the United States, China has not devised a counterterrorism strategy for Somalia and has focused exclusively on protecting its own commercial interests. China’s narrow interests could force the Somali Armed Forces to fight alone in tracts of central and southern Somalia where the Belt and Road Initiative does not cross.
Russia could also see its influence expand in the event of a U.S. withdrawal from Somalia. Since 2016, Somalia has asked Russia for counterterrorism assistance against al-Shabab, and would likely renew these requests if the United States departs. Although Russia does not wish to send its military there, it could view a U.S. exit as a window of opportunity to establish a naval base in the Horn of Africa. In January, U.S. Department of Defense officials stated that Russia had designated the port of Berbera in Somaliland, a self-declared state within Somalia, as the ideal location for such a base. The United States previously thwarted Moscow’s ambitions of establishing one in Djibouti, so Russian officials could view a U.S. withdrawal from Somalia as an opportunity to enter the international competition for Red Sea facilities.
A U.S. withdrawal from Somalia would also remove a vital check on the destabilizing conduct of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Iran in Africa. The UAE has backed separatist movements in Somaliland and Puntland, as it seeks to expand its leverage over critical ports in both regions and counter Turkey’s rising influence in Somalia. Iran has allegedly provided assistance to al-Shabab, while Qatar’s interference in Somalia’s internal politics has exacerbated corruption and poor governance in the country. Given a U.S. departure, Somalia could become, like Yemen or Libya, a battleground for influence between all four countries.
Although the many risks associated with an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Somalia make Trump’s proposal ill-advised, the alternative of a U.S. “forever war” in Somalia is equally problematic. Even though the United States was expected to hand over security responsibilities to the Somali National Army in 2021, Africom stated in March that U.S. training efforts for Somalia’s Danab (Lightning) Brigade would last until 2027. In order to eventually complete a safe withdrawal, the United States needs to strike a middle ground between Trump’s and the Pentagon’s preferred policies on Somalia by incrementally shifting burdens to the African countries that are most acutely threatened by al-Shabab.
The recent improvement in U.S.-Kenyan relations, which resulted in the announcement of free trade negotiations in early July, should facilitate Nairobi’s expanded participation in U.S. counterterrorism operations in Somalia. The United States should revive the cooperation with Tanzania seen during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, and endorse ad hoc regional security initiatives, such as the Somalia-Ethiopia-Eritrea trilateral summits on counterterrorism which began in January. If African countries are better equipped to fight al-Shabab, the United States will be able to orchestrate a phased withdrawal from Somalia at the appropriate time and avoid the security crises that would accompany Trump’s plan.
Although it is uncertain whether Trump will follow through on his plans to end U.S. counterterrorism operations in Somalia, the risks associated with an abrupt U.S. withdrawal doing so unwise. As Somalia prepares for presidential elections in 2021, the U.S. needs to devise a new strategy to counter al-Shabab which extends beyond the binary of forever war or immediate withdrawal that polarizes Washington. Regardless of whether Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden prevails on Nov. 3, terrorism and instability in Somalia will present major challenges for U.S. officials in the months ahead.
Samuel Ramani is a nonresident fellow at the Gulf International Forum and a doctoral candidate in Politics and International Relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy. Twitter: @samramani2