An intensifying U.S. airstrike campaign against Somalia is unlikely by itself to defeat a resilient band of al-Qaida-aligned militants, a fact that could tempt the U.S. to wade deeper into a country faced with the departure of an African force that has offered protection for a decade.
The uptick in U.S. strikes against al-Shabab targets — 13 different attacks since June — is part of a hurried effort to degrade the long-running insurgency and buy time for Somalia’s fledgling military.
The vexing questions now are the country’s fate after the withdrawal of the African Union Mission to Somalia, set to begin next year and conclude by 2020: How much territory could be lost to al-Shabab, and how fast?
“The group (Al-Shabab) would most likely retake some lost territory should AMISOM forces withdraw before the (Somalia National Army) is capable of effective independent operations against the group,” said Robyn Mack, a spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command. “That being said, at this time it’s too early to determine what, if any, additional support will be required from the international community when AMISOM departs.”
Besides airstrikes, the stepped-up operations include U.S. commandos on the front lines with Somali forces. Regular U.S. troops give lessons in building defense institutions, with added support from other nations.
There is some doubt about the likely success of the airstrike campaign and the surge in land operations.
“No clear indication yet, but when pressured previously there has been a temporary degradation in both the group’s command and control and morale of the rank-and-file members,” Mack said. “However, this degradation has likely been temporary. The group has maintained the ability to resurge when pressure against them on the ground by allied/partner forces has lessened.”
When the African Union intervened in Somalia in 2007, al-Shabab was on the brink of overtaking Mogadishu and controlled large areas of territory where it enforced its rule with beheadings and mass killings.
The African Union eventually pushed the militants out of most former strongholds, but as its mission began to slow in 2016, al-Shabab made gains.
Recently, there also have been flickers of Islamic State presence in the country.
. Peter Pham, who is under consideration by the Trump administration to serve as assistant secretary of state for Africa, said airstrikes are unlikely to defeat Shabab, which “has shown itself to be a remarkably resilient group, adapting to the shifting strategic landscape of Somalia and its neighborhood.
“Thus there is no reason to believe that it will not also survive in some fashion the recent setbacks it has suffered in terms of strikes and defections,” Pham said.
African Union and AFRICOM officials also acknowledged that Somalia’s military is unable to fight on its own against al-Shabab, which seeks to impose a strict form of Sharia law.
Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu wouldn’t fall immediately upon the AU’s departure, but it could be eventually at risk as Al-Shabab chips at surrounding territory, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on Somalia with the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank.
“Clearly, al-Shabab understands the reality that everyone else understands as well — the writing is on the wall with the respect to the AU leaving,” Felbab-Brown said.
During the next two years, the U.S. and other Western partners are tasked with readying Somalia’s military to lead the fight, but so far the training effort lacks cohesion, analysts said.
The NATO mission in Afghanistan, where the U.S. has spent billions of dollars to build up security forces, shows the limits of “building partner capacity” in nations with governments that wield little control over their territory.
“All the problems you have in Afghanistan are all bigger in Somalia,” Felbab-Brown said. “There are massive challenges to overcome.”
Government corruption in Somalia is widespread, and clan rivalries have long confounded attempts to impose order on a country with no history of a functioning central government.
Al-Shabab, which rivals Nigeria-based Boko Haram as Africa’s deadliest terrorist group, poses a threat mainly to countries around the eastern Horn of Africa and Western interests there, but the group has threatened to widen its scope of operations. The size of the force is estimated to range from 7,000 to 10,000 fighters.
The West is concerned that if al-Shabab asserts more control over the country, Somalia could become a magnet for al-Qaida and other jihadis, serving as a potential hub for groups under pressure in places such as Syria, Iraq and Libya.
For now, there is no clear U.S. policy on Somalia beyond the current airstrike campaign, a small training mission and more recent diplomatic outreach.
Pham says the U.S. should find ways to aid the nascent government’s terrorism fight.
“The role of the United States is not to nation-build in Somalia. That is the responsibility of Somalis themselves,” said Pham, vice president of the Atlantic Council and director of its Africa program. “It is, however, in the interest of the United States to support – to the extent that they demonstrate an effective capacity — those national or regional entities in Somalia which stand opposed our common extremist enemies and can thus contribute to local and regional security.”
In March, President Donald Trump granted broader powers to AFRICOM, enabling the command to strike quicker against targets in Somalia.
While special operations forces operated secretly in Somalia for years, the military now openly acknowledges that elite forces have a steady mission there. The Army also recently sent regular soldiers into Mogadishu for the first time since 18 servicemembers were killed in one day during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.
In April, about 40 soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division began training Somali troops on logistics to bolster government’s ability to resupply its forces’ combat missions.
The move shows how the U.S. has gradually returned to Somalia more than 20 years after the Black Hawk Down debacle, which ended overt military action in the country until about five years ago.
Pham said there are signs for hope with Somalia’s current government, which is an improvement over past regimes and “deserves a chance” to prove itself.
But “the current Somali government is not without its defects and the international community needs to be very clear-eyed about them and factor in the limitations of what the government can realistically be expected to accomplish,” Pham said.