The number of U.S. military forces in Somalia has more than doubled this year to over 500 people as the Pentagon has quietly posted hundreds of additional special operations personnel to advise local forces in pockets of Islamic militants around the country, according to current and former senior military officials.
It is the largest American military contingent in the war-torn nation since the the infamous 1993 “Black Hawk Down” battle, when 18 U.S. soldiers died. It is also the latest example of how the Pentagon’s operations in Africa have expanded with greater authority provided to field commanders.
The growing Somalia mission, coming more fully to light after four American troops were killed in an ambush in Niger last month, also includes two new military headquarters in the capital of Mogadishu and stepped-up airstrikes. It’s driven by a major shift in strategy from primarily relying on targeted strikes against terrorists to advising and supporting Somali troops in the field, the officials said.
The new operations also come as a peacekeeping mission spearheaded by the African Union is winding down. That is putting more pressure on the fledgling Somali security forces to confront al-Shabab, a terrorist army allied with Al Qaeda that plays the role of a quasi-government in significant parts of the country.
“We had to put more small teams on the ground to partner in a regional way with the Somali government,” retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who commanded American special operations forces in Africa until June, said in an interview. “So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach. That’s why the footprint went up.”
The expansion, which was also outlined by officials at U.S. Africa Command, includes deploying Green Berets and Navy SEALs to far-flung outposts to target the al-Shabab insurgency and a group of militants in the northern region of Puntland who last year pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The deployment of a special operations adviser team to Puntland alongside Somali troops has served as a model for the broader expansion of the mission.
“Puntland was the example we used,” Bolduc said. “We said, ‘We can do this in the other areas.’ So we changed our strategy and we changed our operational approach.”
Also, in a move not previously reported, a SEAL headquarters unit has deployed to Mogadishu from Germany to coordinate the adviser teams that are spread across the country. And in a separate move, trainers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division spent the summer working with Somali troops at the fortified airport complex in Mogadishu. That deployment has since ended, but troops from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division will perform a similar mission next year, a spokesman for the headquarters overseeing Army activities in Africa said.
To oversee the expanded operation, the Pentagon has also sent a general for the first time: Army Brig. Gen. Miguel Castellanos, a veteran of the 1990s peacekeeping mission in Somali who took charge in June of a unit called the Mogadishu Coordination Cell.
At the same time, more airstrikes are being conducted than ever before to kill militant leaders and to defend the American advisers and their African allies. Those include one conducted Saturday 250 miles from Mogadishu that Africa Command said killed a militant after he attacked a convoy of U.S. and Somali troops.
Some of the strikes have been conducted under new authorities that the Trump administration approved in March. It declared parts of Somalia a zone of “active hostilities” akin to Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, and delegated the authority to approve airstrikes further down the chain of command.
In all, according to Africa Command, the U.S. has conducted 28 airstrikes in Somalia this year, nine of them this month. That’s compared to 13 airstrikes and ground raids that the Pentagon announced last year and just five strikes and raids in 2015, according to numbers compiled by the New America Foundation.
The more expansive military effort contrasts with the tiny and secretive U.S. military mission over the past decade headed by the classified Joint Special Operations Command, the military’s main counterterrorism force. JSOC drone strikes reportedly began in Somalia in 2011, and two dozen special operations troops started working as advisers in late 2013.
But the small American contingent was confined mostly to Mogadishu and the Baledogle military airfield in southern Somalia — except during short-duration missions farther afield.
“It was something like 100 people on the ground essentially being the intel and targeting apparatus” for counterterrorism strikes, said an active-duty special operations officer who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity while discussing sensitive operations.
Officially, the Pentagon disputes that the recent increase in troops constitutes a major buildup of forces.
“I would not associate that with a buildup, as you’re calling it,” said Lt. Gen. Frank McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff in the Pentagon, referring to the troop increase. “I think it’s just the flow of forces in and out as different organizations come in that might be sized a little differently, and I certainly don’t think there’s a ramp-up of attacks.”
A spokesperson for Africa Command, Robyn Mack, told POLITICO that the U.S. presence has increased from around 200 to more than 500 this year.
The larger “advise and assist mission,” she explained, is now “the most significant element of our partnership” in Somalia.
The increased presence has not been without controversy inside national security circles, according to multiple people who have been directly involved in the decisions.
Prominent in the discussions has been the recent history of Somalia, which has been wracked by a series of civil wars over the past quarter-century. But the legacy of JSOC’s ill-fated man-hunting mission in support of the U.N. peacekeepers in 1993 — in which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and a pilot captured — has long made American and Somali officials wary of deeper U.S. military involvement.
“Everybody defaults to ‘Black Hawk Down’ and what happened in Somalia in 1993,” said Bolduc, the former commander of special operations forces in Africa.
“That was a real concern when I was working on Somalia policy at the Pentagon and the White House,” added Luke Hartig, who worked on counterterrorism operations at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. “Some military people would say, ‘We’ve evolved a lot as a force, we’ve done these raids every night in Iraq and Afghanistan and can mitigate risk in a way we couldn’t in 1993.’ But it is still one of the real catastrophes of U.S. military operations in the past couple decades.”
Nonetheless, most military and counterterrorism officials agreed that air and drone strikes and other pinpoint operations were deemed insufficient to prevent Somalia from becoming a terrorist haven.
“We came to the realization that trying to handle the threat in Somalia just kinetically was not going to work,” Bolduc said. “Taking out high-value targets is necessary, but it’s not going to lead you to strategic success, and it’s not going to build capability and capacity in our partners to secure themselves. So we provided a plan that complemented the kinetic strikes” with a larger military advisory effort.
The arrival of the Trump administration also gave the military an opportunity to make its case to a more receptive audience, the active-duty special operations officer, who had knowledge of the strategy review, told POLITICO.
“It wasn’t, ‘Oh, thank God, new president, new party, now we can go kick ass,’ but there were opportunities with the change in the political situation,” he said.
An equally important factor, Bolduc said, was the Obama administration’s appointment last year of Stephen Schwartz as ambassador in Mogadishu. Schwartz is the first U.S. ambassador to Somalia since before the Black Hawk Down battle and is credited with laying the groundwork with the Somali government, he explained.
But with the stepped-up U.S. military effort also comes greater risk. A member of SEAL Team 6 was killed during one such mission in May.
“Do we get into contact with the enemy? Yes, we do — our partners do and we’re there to support it, and sometimes we come into contact by virtue of how the enemy attacked them,” Bolduc said. “The benchmark that we used in our planning was that U.S. forces coming into contact with the enemy was unlikely. We met that standard most of the time.”
However, Hartig, the former counterterrorism official who also helped craft the new strategy, said he worries about special operations troops getting involved too deeply in rural regions with complex tribal politics. That’s a problem that has plagued U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.
“Somalia’s incredibly complex human terrain, and you want to be sure you know what you’re getting into,” he said. “Some of the special operations guys do know a lot about Somalia, but we haven’t previously had people on the ground out in the communities.”
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