President Joe Biden campaigned on ending the “forever wars,” and while he lived up to that promise by withdrawing from Afghanistan last August, he may have done the opposite with the redeployment of troops to Somalia.
Biden, earlier this week, agreed to deploy roughly 500 troops to Somalia roughly 18 months after the previous administration withdrew them just days before the current administration commenced.
U.S. troops are returning to the African nation to fend off a growing terrorist threat in al Shabaab, an al Qaeda affiliate that’s predominantly in Somalia. A senior administration official told reporters Monday that al Shabaab has “unfortunately only grown stronger” and “has increased the tempo of its attacks, including against U.S. personnel.”
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Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee in mid-March and warned lawmakers that al Shabaab “has only grown stronger and bolder over the past year.”
“The decision to put back troops in Somalia is certainly a welcome step, but I’m not sure what is being proposed is enough to handle the problem,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Washington Examiner. “The cauldron of Somalia has been boiling over for years. The withdrawal took off the lid.”
The forces deployed to Somalia will likely result in a “period of time where, so instead of [al Shabaab] gaining ground at a faster pace, we could slow that or maybe knock it back in certain areas, but it’s not going to lead to the defeat, not with that level of involvement," he added.
Biden’s decision to approve Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s order looms large following last August’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Trump administration agreed to a conditions-based withdrawal in January 2020, which a recent Department of Defense inspector general found was the genesis of the collapse of the Afghan military.
The Taliban launched a military offensive during the final month of the United States's 20-year stay in Afghanistan and were able to topple the U.S.-backed Ghani government in two weeks. The U.S. and other western leaders then launched a massive evacuation effort for Afghans and third-country nationals who were afraid to live under a Taliban regime, though thousands who had helped the West over the past two decades were left behind.
"I think [the Biden administration has] created a bigger problem in Afghanistan," former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers told the Washington Examiner in an interview. "Then, we found ourselves in before the chaotic and I think short-sighted and really naive pullout that they accomplished there. And I think they saw the consequences ... with al Shabaab, who have said, 'Hey, that's the way the United States is feeling these days. We're going to get more emboldened.'"
Terror groups in Afghanistan, both al Qaeda and ISIS-K, have launched efforts to reconstitute and have the opportunity to flourish with the Taliban in control of the country.
Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee last week and said the threat from ISIS-K could take “a year, slightly longer, and longer for al Qaeda,” while Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who testified alongside Berrier, agreed with his assessment, acknowledging that ISIS-K is “the more concerning threat.”
The way the withdrawal played out “sent all the wrong messages to all the wrong people,” Rogers added. “I think al Shabaab thought this was an opportunity to ramp up its efforts in Mogadishu, and we’ve seen certainly a lot of their activities, which has left a lot of people dead, so it was the right decision. But the same decision that was stated to go back to Somalia, those conditions exist in Afghanistan today.”
Roggio and Brookings Institution Director of Research Michael O’Hanlon both criticized the political aspect of the narrative to end so-called forever wars.
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"There's no appetite in Washington to meaningfully deal with these issues. I think, you know, the first step needs to be that the idea of ending the so-called endless wars means that the fighting stops, the jihadists get a vote," Riggio added. "The president has to make the case to the American public as to why it's important for U.S. forces to be in Somalia."
"The irony here is that sometimes we in Washington create a sense of need to end the forever wars when the public isn't really demanding that," O'Hanlon explained, noting that he doesn’t expect “the danger of extremism will necessarily rise to the level where we must go back into Afghanistan and what would now be a much more difficult operation given that we don’t have a friendly government to work with any longer.”