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US giving direct military assistance to Somali National Army

Understanding the long history of U.S. military aid to Somalia amidst a surge in fighting

ElIas Yousif

On Tuesday, February 28, two U.S. C-17 cargo planes landed at Mogadishu’s Aden Adde International Airport carrying 61 tons of small arms and ammunition destined for the Somali National Army. The delivery is both a practical and symbolic demonstration of the U.S.’s reinvigorated support for the Somali central government and caps what has been a notable escalation of U.S. engagement in Somalia over the past year. To put the latest delivery of security assistance into context, it’s worth understanding the ebbs and flows of U.S. military engagement in Somalia and the unique political and security challenges the country faces moving forward.

 

U.S. Security Assistance to Somalia

 

The United States has long and complicated relationship with Somalia, including through its sordid involvement in the country’s colonial period as well as during the rule of Cold War-era dictator Siad Barre. But in the aftermath of Washington’s failed 1992-1993 military intervention in the country, and the now infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident that left 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis dead, the United States spent nearly a decade keeping Somalia at arm’s length.

U.S. reiticence to engage with Somalia began to change in the early 2000s, as efforts to sustain nascent state-building and peace initiatives dovetailed with Washington’s renewed focus on Islamist militancy in the region. In the decades since, the United States has become one of Somalia’s largest international assistance donors and its largest provider of humanitarian aid. But military assistance has continued to be a core component of Washington’s engagement with the country, an effort that has persistently centered on the decade-and-a-half long fight against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked Islamist insurgency.

According to the Congressional Research Service, between 2010 and 2020, the United States provided more than $500 million in direct security assistance to Somali Forces. U.S. support has included a robust advise, assist, and accompany enterprise for certain Somali units, most notably the U.S.-mentored Danab Brigade. The Danab (or Lightning) Brigade is an elite special operations unit developed from the ground up with U.S. support, and it has gained a reputation as among the most combat-effective formations in the Somali army.

10 U.S.C. §§ 127e and 333

10 U.S.C. § 333, commonly referred to as Section 333, is the Department of Defense’s “global train and equip” authority and allows the provision of training and equipment to the national security forces of foreign countries to build their capacity to conduct a number of different missions.

10 U.S.C. § 127e, commonly referred to as 127 echo, is a Department of Defense authority allowing the Secretary of Defense to expend up to $100 million annually to provide support to foreign security personnel, irregular forces, or individuals engaged in supporting or facilitating ongoing special operations counterterror operations.

 


Support for the Danab Brigade and other Somali troops has come from a number of U.S. security assistance and cooperation authorities, including the Department of Defense’s 127e and 333 authorities. Both allow the Department to train and equip Somali forces, though, in practice, 127e has also allowed U.S. special forces to deploy Somali units as surrogates and operate alongside them.

By comparison, between 2010 and 2020, the United States has spent $2.5 billion on security assistance to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and its successor, the African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS) – more than five times what was provided directly to Somali forces. These African Union stabilization missions are made up of personnel from a number of contributing countries (including Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Zambia) including both military and police components, and are aimed at reducing the threat posed by al-Shabaab and other militants and assisting Somali forces in providing security. Somalia is the largest yearly beneficiary of the Department of State’s Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) program, having received $1.395 billion in PKO funds between FY2016 and FY2021, much of which has supported the operations of troop-contributing countries.

 

Beyond the provision of material assistance and training, the United States has engaged in active hostilities in support of Somali and associated forces, including airstrikes and ground combat in Somalia and neighboring countries. The proximity of U.S. special operations forces to Somali troops who are frequently in combat environments has meant that U.S. forces often find themselves in the midst of deadly firefights or Somali military missions. Leaning on allowances for collective self-defense, U.S. forces have frequently engaged in active hostilities alongside Somali forces. This has included U.S. airstrikes that have been found to have resulted in civilian casualties, an important propaganda message for al-Shabaab and its affiliates.

Overall, U.S. security assistance to Somalia and peacekeeping operations in the country amounts to approximately $3 billion over the last decade, making Somalia among the most significant recipients of security aid in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

U.S. Troops Return as Mogadishu Goes on the Offensive

 

The recent delivery of U.S. arms in February comes amidst a spike in fighting between the Somali central government and al-Shabaab. The insurgent group has operated in Somalia in various forms since the mid-2000s and declared allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012. Capitalizing on decades of instability and conflict, the absence of a credible central government, and various regional and sub-regional conflicts, al-Shabaab grew from a small militia into a formidable militant group that has, at various times, controlled substantial portions of the country, including several districts of the capital, Mogadishu.

Over the past decade, despite notable periods of violence, battlefield setbacks, and a number of political crises, the government in Mogadishu and African Union forces have managed to wrest back control of many parts of the country, including strategically valuable urban and coastal areas. But internal political disputes and tension between Mogadishu, African Union leaders, and Somali federal member state authorities, as well as abusive or corrupt government practices, have all undercut counter-al-Shabaab efforts and U.S. support for military operations in the country.

In 2017, the United States suspended support to much of the Somali army over corruption concerns and the Somali military’s inability to account for weapons, fuel, and other assistance provided through security aid programs. Assistance was partially resumed in 2019, but the Trump administration withdrew all U.S. troops from Somalia the following year. Though the training mission continued outside of the country, it did so on a smaller scale and with added logistical complexities. Despite those curtailments, or perhaps because of them, U.S. airstrikes, drone strikes, and other counterterror operations in Somalia saw a steep rise under the Trump administration, which approved a Department of Defense proposal to give the military greater latitude to conduct lethal missions. As a result, U.S. strikes rose from 48 during the entire tenure of the Obama administration to 207 during the Trump years.

In May 2022, the Biden administration elected to reverse Trump’s withdrawal and re-introduced U.S. forces into Somalia on a more persistent basis. The decision reflected faltering counterinsurgency efforts, gains al-Shabaab had made in the preceding months, growing concerns about transnational threats stemming from Somalia and the environs controlled by non-state groups, and a winding-down of African Union operations in the country.

 

The latest delivery of arms comes as Somalia tries to sustain a major offensive against al-Shabaab that began in 2022, when a local tribal uprising by clans bristling against the militant group’s abusive rule and taxation policies managed to expel insurgents from a number of towns and villages. The offensive, which includes both formal and irregular units, broke a long period of largely static fighting that many had considered a stalemate.

In the months since, the offensive has seen some significant, albeit uneven, successes, particularly in central Somalia. Notably, elite, foreign-trained units, including the Danab as well as Turkish-trained Somali commandos, are said to have been instrumental in offensive operations as well as coordinating local clan-based formations. Accordingly, a portion of the materiel delivered in February, which includes AK-47 rifles, heavy machine guns, and ammunition, will equip Danab forces and a slate of their new recruits. The arms will also go to Somalia National Army forces fighting in central Galmadug State, where fighting has been most acute, as well as the southern Jubaland State, where a relatively new front has opened up near al-Shabaab’s Middle Juba strongholds.

 

Enduring Challenges and Concerns

 

Despite the recent success of the Somali offensive, the underlying drivers of conflict remain unresolved. And after more than 15 years of fighting, al-Shabaab has proven to be both adaptable and resilient. Moreover, decades of U.S. security force assistance and direct military interventions, while enabling episodic battlefield advances, has done little to shift the evolving political dilemmas that have beset Somalia since the early 1990s.

Importantly, U.S. interventions in Somalia, including in their more recent iterations, have come at significant costs, most especially to Somali civilians. U.S. military operations in Somalia have a long history of civilian harm, a fact that the U.S. military has an equally long history of denying. Until March 2019, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) claimed that its many strikes had harmed no civilians. Investigatory organizations, like Airwars, however, put a conservative estimate of civilian casualties from U.S. conducted between 85 and 161 strikes since 2007. And while AFRICOM has taken the noteworthy step of declaring its airstrikes, the U.S. has provided little information about its ground operations and their consequences for civilians.

U.S. military operations, including advise, assist, and accompany missions, have also drawn legal scrutiny, particularly with regard to how they may be intentionally crafted to place U.S. service members into active hostilities. New research illustrates how §§ 333 and 127e capacity building programs have, in practice, been used as de-facto authorizations for the use of military force, despite their lack of statutory remit.

In such opaque and unsettled environments, U.S. security force assistance can have dangerous knock-on effects that undermine stated U.S. interests and objectives. For example, the Puntland Security Force, an elite commando unit of the semi-autonomous Puntland region of Somalia, which was effectively “built” by the United States, has fought central government forces, endangering civilians and bringing violence to once secure urban areas.

Still, the Biden administration appears to be doubling down on its military assistance enterprise, expanding both materiel transfers and advise, assist, and accompany missions, without commensurate investments in political or diplomatic tracks that might ease the underlying drivers of conflict.

 

What Security Assistance Can’t Solve

 

In the shadow of decades of conflict, Somalia’s challenges continue to mount, many of which have little to do with war, but are certainly exacerbated by fighting, including drought and acute hunger across the country. While the U.S. continues to provide humanitarian assistance, the preeminence of counterterror and counterinsurgency priorities can obscure other concerns that will ultimately complicate efforts to build peace in the country.

In addition to large-scale hunger, intra-Somali politics and persistent problems in governance plague efforts to demonstrate to large parts of the country the appeal of the central government. In places where al-Shabaab has been cleared, community expectations of a return on investment for their resistance are high, placing increasing pressure on Mogadishu to follow its military offensive with much-needed government services.

Moreover, the potential that various external train and equip missions may fuel violent internal competition is growing. In addition to a U.S. presence, Turkish forces have also built up strong commando units, as have the Emiratis and Egyptians, in a clandestine effort that could upset agreements between state and federal authorities.

How the United States pairs its security sector assistance with other initiatives that seek to address root causes of conflict will be important in shaping Somalia’s prospects in the coming years, especially as the African Union winds down its mission in the country. Issues of weak governance, poor service provision, and fractious politics at varying levels have all enabled al-Shabaab’s presence since the mid-2000’s and remain persistent problems that U.S. security sector assistance does little to address. The United States should consider what other complementary approaches to Somalia can ensure that an overreliance on military driven solutions does not elongate conflict or obscure opportunities for progress.

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