While President Trump has largely rejected calls for deeper U.S. military involvement in hot spots like Syria and Venezuela, the commander-in-chief who once inveighed against America’s “destructive cycle of intervention and chaos” has quietly escalated the U.S. counter-terrorism battle in a more remote region: the Horn of Africa.
Senior Pentagon officials told Sinclair that since Mr. Trump issued new orders to the military in April 2017, the Defense Department has conducted more than 100 air strikes in Somalia, and deployed approximately 500 troops there, including Green Berets and special forces, as part of a mission aimed at taking down the terrorist group al-Shabaab and empowering the weak federal government in Mogadishu.
“The United States is strongly committed to Somalia’s stabilization,” the president told Congress in a letter last month, in which he used his executive authority to extend the state of emergency with respect to Somalia that was first proclaimed by Mr. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, back in 2010. “The situation with respect to Somalia continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”
Although Al-Shabaab’s control of territory inside Somalia has shrunk from an estimated high of 55 percent four years ago to about 20 percent today, the group has pledged its loyalty to al-Qaeda and remains lethal inside, and beyond, Somalia’s borders. It is perhaps best known for a deadly shooting attack inside the Westgate shopping mall in neighboring Kenya in 2013. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the group “remains capable of carrying out massive attacks in Somalia and surrounding countries despite a long-running African Union offensive against the Islamist group.”
The American mission, code-named Operation Octave shield, is managed in coordination with the African Union’s effort. The Defense Department has disclosed that a recent trio of U.S. airstrikes in Somalia, conducted between Feb. 28 and March 13, killed thirty-one terrorists. Published reports have estimated that the forty-seven strikes the U.S. launched in 2018 killed 326 people. Already, U.S. pilots have conducted approximately 35 air strikes in Somalia this year, but Pentagon officials said the tempo of air operations is expected to match, not exceed last year’s totals.
The Pentagon has acknowledged causing at least two civilian deaths, and at least one American — Army Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Conrad, of Chandler, Arizona — is believed to have been killed in the Somali campaign. Defense Department officials said Conrad died last June from injuries sustained from “enemy indirect fire.”
Among those overseeing the president’s shadow war in Somalia is Andrew Knaggs, a former Green Beret from New Jersey who now serves as deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism. While acknowledging that the American mission to train Somali security forces, specifically an advanced infantry unit known as the Denab, is only in its “nascent stage,” Knaggs otherwise points to “headway” being made by U.S. forces.
“Winning is something that I can’t attach a metric to,” he told Sinclair in an exclusive interview at the Pentagon. “However, we do have objectives that we are making progress in. We’ve been able to train up to — on the order of about a thousand Denab, which is significant. And it’s one thing to train units and it’s quite another to have those units be confident enough that they’re willing to conduct operations and really secure their own country.”
He also cited improving economic conditions in Somalia, including more robust foreign investment.
“Asked about the commander-in-chief’s renown as a non-interventionist, Knaggs, who also holds a law degree, cited last month’s extension of the emergency declaration from 2010 and added: “DOD is confident that we are aligned with the president’s intent and the president’s view of the situation in Somalia.”
Seth G. Jones, a former officer at U.S. Special Operations Command and now chair of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has tracked al-Shabaab’s activities for the better part of a decade. “They’re focused on establishing an Islamic emirate in not just Somalia but in a slightly broader region that includes, for example, part of Kenya. They do control areas of Somalia, and in those areas, they institute — much like the Islamic State — a pretty harsh form of Sharia, or Islamic law.”
Jones told Sinclair the Trump administration’s signal decision on Somalia was to loosen the rules of engagement for U.S. military commanders at United States Africa Command, or AFRICOM, so they could take the fight to the terrorists more swiftly. “What the Trump administration has done has increased the number of strikes against al-Shabaab,” Jones said, “and second, they’ve also made it a little easier for the military to conduct those strikes…without having to go up to the National Security Council level every time to get approval.”
Still, Pentagon brass has cautioned that U.S. military power cannot alone achieve all of the president’s objectives in this country of 15 million people, long wracked by conflict and poverty so pervasive that, according to the United Nations, nearly half of all citizens live on less than a dollar a day.
“At the end of the day, these strikes are not going to defeat al-Shabaab,” General Paul Waldhauser, commander of AFRICOM, told a Senate hearing in February. “But they are going to provide the opportunity for the Federal Government and the Somali national army to grow and assume the security of that country.”
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, agreed. “One of the reasons al-Shabaab is so influential is that they’re able to collect taxes, administer justice, provide basic public services — a big civilian capacity. And so the question here now is that you know, even with all the military effort we’ve put in, if we don’t have this civilian capacity component, I don’t think your mission is going to succeed.”