Last Friday, the Pentagon announced that nearly all US military forces in Somalia, by order of the president, will leave the country by January 15. The announcement came on the heels of a similar decision in November to halve America’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, to about 2,500 personnel in each country. Together, the moves amount to a last-minute attempt by Trump, who will be replaced in the White House on January 20, to make good on his pledges to scale back foreign wars.
Even to the president’s most vigorous critics, this may come as welcome news. America’s military is overcommitted in too many corners of the globe, and our wars have gone on more than long enough. I participated directly in the conflicts in Afghanistan and East Africa, as an intelligence officer with special operations units between 2013 and 2015, and that was my first reaction to the announcement: Fine. Good.
On further thought, though, the details of the announcement didn’t add up. Trump may grandstand about bringing the troops home, but for many reasons—the hurried nature of the withdrawals, especially—it struck me that the president’s moves have much more to do with his own interests than the nation’s.
To explain, let’s get one thing straight from the get-go: Trump is no peacemaker. This year has seen more air strikes targeting Al Shabaab militants in Somalia than in the entirety of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations combined. Because the Trump administration has loosened restrictions preventing casualties, civilian deaths from air strikes have seen a considerable uptick, as documented by journalists and advocacy groups. In Afghanistan, meanwhile, civilian casualties increased by 330 percent between 2016 and 2019, according to a new report by the Brown University Costs of War Project; in 2019 alone, 700 civilians were killed by air strikes, more than in any year since the beginning of that war in 2001.
Anyway, it’s not clear that the Trump administration’s withdrawal of forces from Somalia will end this violence. The Pentagon’s statement indicated that many of the roughly 700 troops deployed to Somalia—mostly representing special operations units—would be relocated to neighboring countries (so not even brought back to the States) and available for cross-border counterterrorism operations. The statement didn’t mention air strikes but stated vaguely that the US “will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia,” meaning strikes are likely to continue.
Trump’s rhetoric about costly foreign interventions aside, the withdrawal begins to look like a surface technicality. As the defense department said itself: “While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in US policy.”
In any case, for some, regardless of partisan allegiance, how America gets its troops out of various foreign combat zones might seem to matter less than the simple fact of doing it. Certainly, the strategic shifts and careful balancing of military and diplomatic efforts that preceded Trump did little to rein in America’s out-of-control war on terror.
On this front, it’s worth unpacking how exactly American troops function in Somalia. This is not, as some might imagine, a case of American troops wandering the streets and kicking in doors with impunity, à la Iraq and Afghanistan. Overwhelmingly, service members in Somalia are there supporting Somali security forces and those of the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, a peacekeeping force comprised of soldiers from African nations including Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Burundi, and Sierra Leone. This so-called “advise and assist” mission can take the form of training, intelligence sharing, tactical advisory, and material support; direct participation in combat is very rare, though not unheard of.
Whether these efforts have been effective is fairly a matter of debate. On the one hand, US support has enabled the Somali government to reclaim Mogadishu, the country’s capital, and other important population centers. On the other, Al Shabaab retains large swaths of territory and over the years has executed a steady stream of high-profile attacks across the region—in 2013, an assault on a Nairobi, Kenya shopping center that killed 63; in 2015, an attack on a Kenyan university that killed 148; and, in 2017, a truck bomb attack in Mogadishu that killed 587. Lest we doubt America’s own security interests in the region, recall that it was from East Africa in 1998 that Al Qaeda orchestrated attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania—precursors to the attacks of September 11, 2001. Al Shabaab swore allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2014 and is generally considered one of the terrorist group’s most capable affiliates.
Let’s entertain for a moment that Trump’s drawdown could derive from an earnest philosophical disagreement with American misadventures and perhaps fear that the incoming Biden administration will perpetuate these conflicts. If that were the case, then why did the president not act sooner and with greater effort to alter the status quo?
What seems more likely is that Trump, ever on the lookout for Number One, needs some kind of policy victory, having precious little otherwise on which to construct his legacy. He has railed against America’s costly wars, so perhaps now he can count “bringing home the troops” as a promise kept in the simplest of terms. Never mind the dangerous realities on the ground or any other context that might suggest a slower and better-managed exit from these countries. And never mind consequences for allies we spent years cultivating and whom we now abandon with no advance notice whatsoever.
In Somalia’s case, according to BBC News, US inspectors in November recommended against a withdrawal from the country, because local forces likely wouldn’t be able to suppress attacks without support. To boot, a presidential election in the country is scheduled for February, which Al Shabaab will almost certainly seek to disrupt. As one Somali senator put it, speaking to the BBC, Trump’s last-minute decision is “extremely regrettable” for his country.
The context in Iraq and Afghanistan is no better. In Iraq, the security situation is extremely volatile; as a result of their hurried exit, US military leaders fear an uptick in attacks by Iran and its proxies, not to mention the possibility of a resurgent ISIS. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is stronger now than in years, and Al Qaeda is perhaps stronger than we think, yet Trump has repeatedly forced forward negotiations with the Taliban. “It seems either arbitrary, so [Trump] can say he drew down forces, or maybe he doesn’t care if things go off the rails,” Ben Rhodes, a former Obama aide, observed on a recent episode of Crooked Media’s Pod Save The World podcast. “There’s no limit to Trump’s cynicism, so you actually might need to consider the reality that he’s going to leave circumstances almost deliberately more difficult for [Joe] Biden. He gets to say, ‘I drew down troops,’ and then he gets to blame Joe Biden when the ISIS problem gets worse.”
If that sounds conspiratorial, remember that the truth is often stranger than fiction with this president. It would hardly be the only wrench Trump is throwing in the gears on his way out.
Yet media reports, broadly, have taken Trump’s troop withdrawals at face value, framing them as part and parcel of Trump’s “America First” ideology, while also giving short shrift to the facts of missions and still salient threats. “Oh cool, Twitter is trending a contextless headline about a war most Americans don’t even know is happening,” the journalist Jonathan Myerson Katz complained on the social media platform, referring to Somalia. “Twitter is not alone in this, of course,” he added, referencing The New York Times’ essentially credulous coverage of the announcement. “In four years, some people still haven’t figured out how to pay more attention to what a lying president does than what he says.”
To be clear, I’m no proponent of indefinite or ill-defined troop deployments, and in this magazine I’ve argued on multiple counts against forever war. I believe America should pursue every responsible option to leave Afghanistan and that a thorough review of our footprints in East Africa and elsewhere is long overdue. Drawdown shouldn’t look like this, though. To our foreign partners, whom we have trained and fought with; to the people of these countries whom we have asked to trust America, even despite the enormous human tragedies war has wrought; and, speaking from just one veteran’s perspective, to all the military men and women who have served and died in these conflicts over the years, America’s leaders owe a great deal more than a slipshod, self-interested rush out the door.
The consequences of the president’s actions will likely come back around in time. If and when they do, Trump and his allies will tell a simple story that he was the man who tried to end war. We, instead, should remember the context and complications he chose to ignore. Then we should insist on placing the blame squarely where it belongs.