Saturday, April 15, 2017

US deploys troops to Somalia to fight al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab

A 1993 picture of a crashed helicopter during the Battle of Mogadishu, better known as "Black Hawk Down. BBC/AFP.

For the first time since 1993 the United States has deployed troops to Somalia in an effort to destroy the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab. BBC. The dozens of troops will train local Somali fighters to fight al-Shabab. The United States has not deployed troops to Somalia since the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, which is now better known as "Black Hawk Down" because of the title of the popular book and movie. 18 US soldiers died in that battle and the US has been reluctant to return to the country since then. US forces have conducted multiple missile, air and drone strikes since then though. The UK and Turkey are also training the Somali Army, which is widely regarded as substandard and requiring help. Al-Shabab has conducted terror attacks both in Somalia itself and in Kenya. They have even called for attacks in the United States. 

My Comment:
A fairly important military deployment that isn't getting much coverage. Indeed, half the BBC article was reporting on the 1993 battle. I guess that is an important part of the story too, but the deployment alone should be big news. The Battle of Mogadishu was a hugely important one even before the book was written and the movie was made. The 18 US deaths in the battle made the US more wary of deploying troops on humanitarian missions and much more aware of the concept of "mission creep".

Some have pointed out that the Battle of Mogadishu was one of the first places we ever engaged al-Qaeda. This was before 9/11, before the USS Cole and even before the bombing of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. News outlets have reported that al-Qaeda was involved in training the troops that attacked US forces in the battle. They were the ones that taught the local militants how to angle the RPG's that destroyed and damaged US Black Hawk helicopters that caused the mission to fail. 

Almost 25 years later, al-Qaeda is still a force in Somalia. Now they focus on fighting the weak and damaged local government and use Somalia as a staging area for attacks outside of the country. Kenya has been especially hard hit. The 2013 Westgate Mall attack and the 2015 Garissa College attack killed dozens of people and are merely the most well known incidents. If it wasn't for ISIS running wild in Europe and the Middle East and al-Qaeda's Yemeni affilate, AQAP pulling off the Charlie Hebdo attacks, al-Shabab would be one of the foremost terror groups.  

Al-Shabab has also threatened attacks in the United States. They once called for an attack on the Mall of America in Minnesota and have called for recruits to come fight for them as well. Minnesota has a large Somali population and some people have returned to the country to fight. As an aside, my part of the country also has a small but growing Somali population, that I fear might be vulnerable to radicalization as well. 

With all that being said, it makes a lot of sense that we are training forces in Somali to fight al-Shabab. Not only are they a threat to the region, they are one of al-Qaeda's best remaining groups. Unlike the rest of al-Qaeda which has been dismantled and defended, al-Shabab is still running strong and are one of the few terror groups in the world that control territory. They are a huge threat and could very well attack Americans at home or abroad. 

And from what I understand the Somali military needs all the help it can get. The country is just barely beginning to turn itself around after decades of being a failed state. That is hard enough to do under normal circumstances, but when you have a brutal terror group like al-Shabab running around it's even harder. They don't have the history, leadership or experience to be a tough fighting force and need help to get there. 

I'm not sure if I totally agree with sending troops there. I think the argument for the deployment is strong, but there is a counterargument as well. Our special forces are stretched thin as it is since they are deployed in Syria, Iraq and various other locations across the world. The locals are also being trained by the Turks and the UK, who are certainly capable of doing a decent job. Plus, those troops would be prime targets for any terrorists. Perhaps the status quo ante, where our only involvement was drone and airstrikes, is the better option. 

Still, it's not like we are sending in a couple of divisions and invading the whole country. A few handfuls of troops aren't really that expensive to deploy and they can accomplish quite a bit just by training. Indeed, it might even be cheaper to train local fighters than dropping bombs or missiles on al-Shabab. There is the risk of combat but the risk is low. Even with the criticism, it's not like it's a boneheaded move or anything. It makes sense strategically, even if there are other options. 

I do wish that there was more public knowledge about our role in Somalia. Outside of Egypt, our deployments and actions in Africa are completely off the public's radar. Part of that is to a general disinterest in Africa, but I think the wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Yemen have distracted us. I just wish that when we send troops to Africa we would have a more public debate about what we are trying to accomplish. I think that debate would probably come to the same conclusion, that we should deploy trainers, but the fact of the matter is that we didn't have that debate and probably never will... 

No comments:

Post a Comment