Al-Shabab, an Islamist group mainly centered in Somalia, in East Africa (an African country only recently allowed to reclaim its sovereignty), is part of a growing number of militant extremist groups now operating in Africa, and is strongly affiliated with the growth of fundamentalist violence in different parts of the continent. Al Shabab publicly declared its partnership to the Al Qaeda jihadists in 2012, so there is no confusion about what they are about on the continent.
Whatever semblance of government Somalia has tried to erect and operate in the area within the last 10 years or so has been attacked by Al Shabab and the group has tried to impose its extremist views of Islam on the whole country. Al Shabab is also known for bombing locales in neighboring Kenya too, with some regularity, especially tourist-friendly hotels and shopping malls.
Al Shabab is certainly dangerous to life and government in Somalia and other parts of Africa.
What is not commonly known, however, is that the U.S. military is fighting an increasingly expanding set of battles daily against Al Shabab and in support of the Somalian government.
For a while, the U.S. Africom forces (Africa Command) mainly worked with proxy forces, including about 20,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda, Kenya and other East African nations to try and tamp down Al Shabab activity. Now, however, following the orders of President Donald Trump, U.S. military forces are engaging Al Shabab fighters directly, especially through aerial bombing and drone attacks. For the two years of the Trump administration, that conflict has gotten bigger and bigger. Current estimates are that Al Shabab has about 5,000 to 7,000 fighters in Somalia, but the numbers, according to captured deserters, may be as small as 500, and regardless of the total number, they are still seen as ferocious and extremely dangerous.
The best estimate of American military strength currently is 500 or so American troops in Somalia. Mainly Special Ops forces, they are stationed in scattered small bases spread across the country. The stated mission of these American military forces is to train and advise the growing Somali army and to create/build independent Somali counterterrorism troops, while conducting unfettered kill-or-capture raids of their own in the country.
Why, is a serious question. Somalia did not even have an American ambassador until a few months ago, and Somalia is not a strategic economic or political interest to American foreign policy officials. In fact, before now, Somalia mainly existed in American folklore as the African country in which a heavy load of American military personnel was killed in the famous or infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in the 1990s.
It could just be a vanity project for Mr. Trump, who is famously known for doing the opposite of what Mr. Obama did as POTUS. Mr. Obama had forbidden any American military activity in Somalia during his administration. Also, according to Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of Africom, the U.S. drawdown in Syria and Afghanistan provided the military more resources to devote to its Somali campaign. It might as well utilize that surplus equipment.
For Africa, however, having the U.S. military running rampant in some of its sovereign countries, may not be beneficial in the long run. This is an episode that should be looked at closely, lest military adventurism in Africa become contagious again. America’s outside military interventions have not been highly successful lately, and Africa does not really need any more problems.
Its burden is already heavy enough.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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