In 2017, Somalia and the United States had one thing in common that both countries inaugurated new presidents; Trump and Farmajo a happenstance that may have shaped policies and cooperation between both nations. The US has in the previous years maintained a military presence in the Horn of Africa with a permanent base in Djibouti which has continuously served as a launching pad for operations especially airstrikes against al Shabaab in Somalia.
In 2017, the US airstrikes against al Shabaab targets/positions doubled to 35 a move that can be attributed to a reinvigorated policy that allowed the use of armed drones and lethal force against enemy combatants in the region. Likewise, the number of airstrikes has been on steady upward trend seeing as in 2018 47 airstrikes were conducted and in the past few weeks of 2019, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) says they have conducted 12 airstrikes. While the number is rising the number of killed militants in comparison to the estimated population of al Shabaab militants is negligible. Reports indicate that at least 368 militants out of an estimated over 7000 have been killed by US airstrikes a number that ostentatiously shows the need for a change in tact in dealing and eventually defeating the al Shabaab.
According to AFRICOM commander General Waldhauser, the elementary strategies that drive the agenda and tactics used in Somalia and Africa at large is to:
- Prevent the undermining of the US’ alliances in the continent
- Prevent the destabilization of African nations
- Counter violent extremist groups like Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, ISIS, Al Qaeda, and rebel groups
While the policies are suave on paper, they are deeply flawed as they deal with technical and mechanical peacekeeping processes that ignore other aspects of stability and prosperity. As echoed by Waldhauser, it is important to maintain persistent pressure through airstrikes on al Shabaab but at the same time employ holistic measures that ensure the gains are permanent and timeless. Thus, to address the issue of terrorism in Somalia especially by the US, a change in counterterrorism tactics is necessary.
From the surface, the current spike in airstrikes especially in central and south Somalia where al Shabaab is headquartered appears to yield the expected results and rightfully so as the number of killed militants is on the rise. A deep delve, however, reveals that the assumption of the defeat of al Shabaab based by the number of airstrikes and killed Jihadists is profoundly faulty. Little is being done by the US particularly through community outreach and programs that ensure that the military gains are at par with the social, economic and developmental progress in the affected community. Moreover, if anything, the airstrikes appear to worsen the situation on the ground mainly through extensive collateral damage and residue left by the airstrikes.
The unintended consequences of the US airstrikes can be likened to the Ouroboros; where strikes cause damages that increases the number of civilian and property damage that leads to increased poverty and resentment especially among the youths and by doing so unintentionally helps in the recruitment of fighters for al Shabaab. Intelligence reports show the number of people unaligned to al Shabaab directly or otherwise negatively affected by the strikes is on a steady rise and especially as AFRICOM appear to be disinterested in disclosing civilian casualties. The accountability has been especially opaque as Trump’s directive to designate certain areas as areas ‘active hostilities’ granted AFRICOM the flexibility in conducting airstrikes. Subsequently, the directive allowed for strikes against anyone considered as a member of the al Shabaab other than individuals posing a direct threat to the US, allies or interests.
Instead, the US should adopt a more holistic counterterrorism approach in Somalia that her neighbor Kenya has adopted in the bid to defeat al Shabaab from the inside out. Kenya which has had troops in Somalia for the better part of the decade has resulted in supplementing the kinetic operations with other strategies that have in the long-run yielded better results in weakening the terror organization. Kenya’s approach is population focused and identifies that the community ought to be the primary focus of any counterterrorism approach. Top on the strategies is social and economic empowerment as well as citizen participation in nation-building. Where the US lacks in intelligence gathering, Kenya has reinforced the need for community policing and civic education that highlights the importance of sharing information with security agencies in order to deter al Shabaab attacks and recruitment. Outreach programs have been sponsored by the Kenyan government to reach and socio-economically empower vulnerable groups as well as the cross-border Somali tribes and clans. The Kenyan counterterrorism policy includes capacity building especially at the grassroots to nudge citizens towards actively taking part in governance a trait that can be seen in areas under the control of the Kenyan troops in Somalia.
Thus, it is important for the US to emulate Kenya and change its counterterrorism approach to ensure that while they strengthen the national military to take over the security in Somalia, socioeconomic shortcomings will inherently undermine the purported progress. While airstrikes may weaken al Shabaab, the group cannot be defeated unless the community is empowered and self-reliant.