Where is the United States at war? It’s a hard question to answer. Inevitably though, at least in the last four years, this sentence has changed little: American troops are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. But with a steady stream of airstrikes, militant deaths, alleged civilian casualties and two American troops killed in Eastern Africa since 2017, another country has since crept onto the list: Somalia.
On Sunday, my colleagues Eric Schmitt and Charlie Savage published a story about the escalating war there against the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Shabab, and how the number of American airstrikes in the country have steadily increased under the Trump administration. In 2018 alone, there were 47 strikes that killed 326 people. And 2019 is already on pace to exceed last year’s tallies.
And despite documentation that quantifies the Pentagon’s efforts in Somalia, there is no public record of the C.I.A.’s activities in the country, including if it has its own drone program to search for and to kill Shabab militants. But the agency is undoubtedly intertwined with the military’s efforts in the region, according to defense officials, often piggybacking off American outposts and American-backed militias to support their own clandestine activities.
How did we get here? Like most chapters of the United States’ counterterrorism campaign that began in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the new war in Somalia started with a small influx of 50 American troops in 2016 and has ballooned to 500, now spread across the country in small outposts and aided by thousands of forces from neighboring African countries including Kenya and Uganda.
The last time the United States had an enduring military presence in Somalia was in 1993, but that ended after 18 Americans troops were killed in the capital, Mogadishu, in a violent gun battle, known as the Black Hawk Down incident. Two helicopters were shot down, and their pilots’ bodies were dragged through the streets.
Since then, the Shabab has grown and spread across the country, pledging allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012 and threatening Somalia’s fragile government. In response, the Pentagon ramped up American drone strikes and Special Operations raids. Now as President Trump seeks to withdraw some of the roughly 7,000 American troops on the African continent to ready for great power conflict with Russia and China, the war in Somalia has turned into a small version of Afghanistan.
Special Operations troops patrol in mine-resistant vehicles, heavily armed gunships patrol the night sky and, despite a torrent of attacks and militant body counts often championed in Pentagon news releases, the Shabab remains firmly entrenched in the countryside, with no indication that they’re leaving.