American Swords, Somali Shields
Part I: A Tragedy in Somalia
Around five in the morning of August 25th, 2017, gunfire broke out near the small town of Bariire in Southern Somalia. The Somali National Army, aided by United States (US) special forces, was sweeping through the area, conducting a counterterrorism raid against the Somali jihadist group al-Shabaab. Yet when the smoke had cleared, it was not terrorists, but civilians who were left dead. The incident provoked a furious backlash in Somalia, as well as from the international community.
In the face of public scrutiny, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), the military apparatus in charge of US operations in Somalia, was quick to release a statement saying American troops had only been present “in a supporting role.” Indeed, AFRICOM often claims that American soldiers do not take part in the conflicts they oversee, but rather follow behind local allies, providing advice during missions but never directly engaging the enemy. In the case of the Bariire raid, however, this claim was disputed, and an investigation by the Daily Beast found American bullet casings were present, in chilling quantity, at the scene. According to the same investigation, eyewitnesses further testified that American soldiers had lead the way, not followed.
The tragedy in Bariire exemplifies the confusing state of US counterterrorism strategy in Africa, where the line between combatant and advisor is often blurred, and information about military operations is withheld from the public wherever possible. This article will look at the reasons why US soldiers are playing a “supporting role” in the Somali bush, analyze the military footprint involved in such operations, and evaluate the risks and benefits of an “advise and assist” approach to the global War on Terror.
Part II - How US special forces ended up in Somalia
The doctrine that guides US military strategy in Africa is encapsulated in the phrase “by, with, through,” which refers to the relationship between US troops and their local counterparts, called partner forces. According to this doctrine, military operations should either be done by partner forces, with partner forces, or through partner forces. These options are preferred because they keep US soldiers out of harm’s way, leading to a policy known as indirect engagement. In theory, this “by, with, through” approach should mean providing training, equipment, military-to-military communication, and drone strikes. Yet US soldiers do not always watch from the sidelines, as was demonstrated in the Bariire raid.
When US troops join partner forces on the ground, the concept of “by, with, through” falls into question. AFRICOM calls these joint operations “advise and assist” missions, a mundane term for an important, and controversial, part of US counterterrorism policy. Soldiers on advise and assist missions are supposed to accompany and direct a partner force during an operation, while staying out of the line of fire and avoiding a direct engagement with the enemy. But if the enemy ambushes US soldiers, surprises them, or simply advances on their position, they are allowed to fight back. These exceptions create problems when it becomes unclear which side fired first, or whether American troops ever intended to stay on the back line. Adding to this confusion, advise and assist missions are extremely secretive because US soldiers are rarely injured or killedー which is often how the public learns of special forces operations. The result is cases like Bariire, where the exact role American soldiers played is uncertain, making it difficult to attribute blame when civilians are killed.
Part III - Partner Forces
The forces that accompany US soldiers on advise and assist missions are deceptively called “partners,” despite the fact that they have often been organized, trained, and deployed by the US. In many cases, the loyalty of these forces to their own government is called into question. They are housed in secretive US bases, flown to operation sites by US helicopters, and accompanied by American special forces on their missions, which may have been ordered by the US without their own government’s approval. Hence, the idea of US soldiers serving as advisors to an independent ally is misleading, because the material, command, and logistic backbone of advise and assist missions is often the same as those led by US forces, but with partner forces providing the final manpower of the operations.
Yet while these partner forces may operate alongside, or at the direction of, the United States’ military, they are not subject to the same oversight as their American counterparts. Partner forces have been accused of torturing prisoners, including at bases where US special forces were present. Moreover, the US has trained partner forces in countries where the national army is subject to accusations of human rights abuse, such as in Cameroon, where Amnesty International alleges mass extrajudicial arrests, torture, and killings. Working by, with, or through partner forces linked to such abuse undermines America’s credibility in pushing for human rights in these countries, and risks souring relations with the population at large. Another concern with partner forces’ reliability is the risk of providing them weaponry they may not be able to secure. In Libya, the US military provided the country’s special forces with training and large amounts of equipment, only to see the special forces’ base overrun by militants, giving them possession of its arsenal.
Part IV - Evaluating “Advise and Assist”
The argument in favor of advise and assist missions is a pragmatic one. First, they require a minimal US presence on the ground, because partner forces will augment even a small number of troops’ capabilities, and provide the manpower for dangerous operations. Second, advise and assist missions avoid putting American lives on the line as much as possible, reducing their human cost. Finally, while the “by, with, through” doctrine is limited in its goals when compared to direct military engagement, it can still enable progress in the fight against terrorism. As AFRICOM commander Thomas Waldhauser stated, “these strikes are not going to defeat al Shabaab, but they are going to provide the opportunity for the Federal Government and the Somali National Army to grow and assume the security of that country.”
Conversely, the argument against a “by, with, through” approach to counterterrorism in Africa centers on the role it plays in expanding America’s shadowy security apparatus, one that sent US special forces to 20 African countries in 2016. Advise and assist missions are approved liberally, on the grounds that deploying soldiers in a supporting role is a lesser commitment than sending them to engage the enemy directly. Yet this distinction is difficult to enforce in the field, where soldiers can set their own mandates in deciding whether to fight on the frontlines or remain behind their partners. These missions are also not without risk, as sending US soldiers to the field is inherently dangerous, and examples such as the catastrophe in Niger show that the public may not be willing to expend American lives in foreign places. Moreover, US soldiers being killed creates the risk of escalation, potentially drawing Washington into unnecessary conflicts. Another source of uncertainty is the partner forces that are required for such operations work. These forces are not always reliable and may act in ways that run counter to US interests or values, or even cross the line into atrocities. Finally, advise and assist missions have allowed the military to expand without asking congress, or the public, for approval, and the true scope of these operations in Africa is unknown, creating a dangerous lack of accountability. In the end, while the “by, with, through” doctrine may be an effective, restrained approach to fighting the global War on Terror, it places control dangerously far from civilian oversight, and fails to guarantee that tragedies like those in Somalia and Niger will not happen again.