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Counting the cost

US Military activity in Somalia has increased in the last 10 years. From drone airstrikes to Navy Seal training of Somali elite units, the US is not taking chance in the country. But at what cost and for how long will this go on?

Mohamed Dubo

On March 11th 2019, the US military carried out an airstrike that killed 8 terrorists. The US Africa Command confirmed the incident, saying that the strike was in ‘self-defence and was conducted in support of Somalia- led ground forces that came under attack from militants.’

The strike happened around Darasalaam, Lower Shebelle region, leaving no unintended casualties (in the form of injured or dead civilians). After the air strike militants issued a statement saying they foiled an attack by Somali forces backed by the US military, even going ahead to allege that they killed one US soldier and seriously wounded two others in the botched operation.

This March 11th is not isolated, neither is it the first to have happened in Somalia at the hands of the United States military, specifically through the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones.

Pentagon in Somalia


Col. Charles Bergman, lead integrator for U.S. Africa Command operations in Africa, receives a brief from U.S. personnel at a forward operating location in Somalia on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. {Image Courtesy}

The United States of America has been carrying out drone attacks in Somalia since June 2011 according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has been involved in several ground raids and air strikes in Somalia for the last couple of years-10 years at least.

Although most of these operations have been clandestine, they have been confirmed to be directly linked to Pentagon. All these, including ground surveillance, assault attacks, and reconnaissance and capture operations have been part of the US led war on terror in Somalia.

The military activity in Somalia is justified by the allegations that certain members of the Al Shabaab (a group that had ties to Al Qaeda) are based in Somalia and therefore were part of the tragedy of the World Trade Towers 9/11 attacks. The United States through the 2001 Authorisation for the Use of Military Force Act gave itself the right to pursue and terminate Al Qaeda and its associates wherever they maybe. Seven days after the March 11th air strike, another airstrike by the US military killed around four civilians in Awdheegle in the Lower Shebelle region.

The US post responsible for the strike, US Africa Command, stated that ‘they were aware of reports that alleged civilian harm as a result of the strike.’ It then promised to; “As with any allegation of civilian casualties that we receive, US Africa Command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties.”

Drone attacks have been praised in various quarters for their ability to inflict maximum damage on the enemy, their minimal human involvement and for the fact that most of the time the precision strikes tend to take out the unwanted elements only.

A Somali national army soldier stands in formation after receiving a training certificate after completing 14 weeks of logistical operations training with the U.S. 10th Mountain Division.
EVAN PARKER/U.S. NAVY

While this might just be some clever sales pitch, it bears some truth, and that truth has seen the use of drones by different military units across the world go up. The rise in the use of drone warfare has brought in one major ethical dilemma; the deaths of chil- dren and women and old people who are not involved in the war due to poor targeting or just because they happened to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Civilian deaths

According to an article by the BBC-US airstrikes killed Somali civilians-published on March 20th 2019; the United States has in the past two years stepped up its war on terror through air strikes in various areas thought to be the base operation for militants. In the two years, as per the BBC article, the US has conducted 110 air strikes in Somalia, killing more than 800 people-not civilians.

“According to the US military, its drones and manned aircrafts carried out 47 air strikes in Somalia in 2018 and as at the end of the first quarter of 2019, they had carried out more than 23 airstrikes in Somalia.”

BBC report.

The BBC report goes further to quote a report by Amnesty International. The Amnesty International report analysed five US airstrikes in the Lower Shebelle region and found out that in these five specific airstrikes, US military drones killed at least 14 civilians among them three Somali farmers who were resting in an open field after digging irrigation canals.

The report was compiled after interviews with 150 witnesses and the relatives of the victims. Amnesty International also studied satellite images, photo evidence and bomb fragments and when they were done, they concluded that in five airstrikes, 14 civilians (including women) had died and seven more were seriously injured.

In April this year, CNN reported that the US military mission in Somalia could take seven years to wrap up.   On the week of April 13th (the second week of that month), US president, Donald Trump, signed an executive order extending a presidential declaration of a national emergency concerning Somalia for another year. He called the situation in Somalia ‘an unusual and extraordinary threat’ to the United States.

Seven years to complete

The ongoing damage.

United States officials have been quoted on major news outlets as saying the mission in Somalia might not end anytime soon seeing as the US is pursuing ISIS militants who are believed to have entered into Somalia and are currently operating in small pockets across the country.

At the moment, US Special Operations Forces are looking to train an elite Somali army unit that can hold its own against Al Shabaab or other Al Qaeda linked terror groups in the country and if possible, beat them. CNN reported that if the US is to successfully do this, they will have to train Somali forces till 2026. According to the CNN article – US military mission in Somalia could take seven years to complete- the US has been working closely with the Somali army in its fight against militants:

“For nearly two years, a small team of US Special Operations has been embedded with the Somali National Army, assisting in the fight against the militant group Al Shabaab. As well as advising on airstrikes and ground assaults, the Navy Seal–led team’s primary task is to train and build Somalia its own elite infantry force.”

The elite infantry force in question is called Danab (lightening) and currently has about 500 soldiers. It is however believed that this number is still low and should be increased to 3,000 if the chances of success are to be enhanced.

“The plan is to build two companies a year, with the end-state being five battalions and a brigade headquarters element,” Becky Farmer, a spokesperson for US AfricaCommand told CNN in April, this year.

The fact of the matter is that US military in Somalia has both its positives and its wet sides. In terms of helping fight militants, US Africa Command is doing a great job, but when it comes to the unintended consequences like civilian deaths, it needs to do better.

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