Somali soldiers stand on a platform overlooking a wall.

Trump's Chaotic Non-Withdrawal From Somalia Leaves Civilians At Risk

Formerly secret documents show that the recent directive disrupts plans to further entrench the U.S. in Somalia—and civilians will still be in harm's way.

Last month, President Donald Trump ordered a hasty departure of U.S. troops from Somalia. Despite protests by the Defense Department that the "U.S. is not withdrawing or disengaging from Africa,” it was interpreted as such in some quarters. “Thank you @realDonaldTrump for bringing troops home from Africa!” tweeted Kentucky Senator Rand Paul in the wake of the announcement.


In the wake of the assault on the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob incited by President Trump, this and other lame-duck orders have been all but forgotten, but exclusive and formerly secret 2020 U.S. Africa Command planning documents obtained by VICE World News offer evidence of the president upending established U.S. foreign policy far from the spotlight. While the chaos Trump causes in the United States has taken top billing, other experts caution that Trump’s orders directly impact countries around the world like Somalia, and say Somali civilians may pay a grave price. 

What ultimately results from these rushed efforts may not be known for some time, but Trump’s Somalia announcement stood in stark contrast to policies that were being pursued in the country until his order was issued. Last September, the head of Special Operations Command Africa, for example, U.S. Air Force Major General Dagvin Anderson, argued that U.S. troops needed to remain in Somalia. Just a few months ago, a military spokesperson told VICE World News that a new U.S. outpost in Dhusamareeb was considered essential. Today, U.S. troops are departing Somalia at breakneck speed, the future of the American base is in doubt, and Special Operations Command Africa, also known as SOCAFRICA, won’t respond to VICE World News’s questions about the departure.


While the chaos Trump causes in the United States has taken top billing, other experts caution that Trump’s orders directly impact countries around the world like Somalia, and say Somali civilians may pay a grave price.

While some have interpreted Trump’s eleventh hour move as making good on his frequent talk and tweets about ending “endless wars,” experts say the order to remove approximately 800 U.S. military personnel from Somalia merely relocates troops to neighboring nations, unnecessarily complicates U.S. efforts, and potentially puts Somali civilians at increased risk. “It's not clear what the withdrawal of US forces means, because the Pentagon has suggested it plans to continue airstrikes in Somalia, and that's mostly how the US has been fighting,” Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA’s director of Security with Human Rights, told VICE World News. “Unfortunately, many people seem to be interpreting the withdrawal of US forces as an end to the US wars, in Somalia and elsewhere, but that's not the case. Neither the Trump administration nor the incoming Biden administration has indicated any intent to stop engaging in armed conflicts around the world, whether by drones or by piloted aircraft.”


The White House directive also upends longstanding plans to, according to the formerly secret planning documents, entrench and expand America’s military footprint in Somalia. The U.S. withdrawal—dubbed Operation Octave Quartz—comes at a critical moment for Somalia as that country prepares for parliamentary and presidential elections in the weeks ahead. It throws into chaos longstanding U.S. military efforts, consisting of ground missions by commandos alongside Somali and regional forces, security assistance to those same forces, and an air war that has markedly escalated under the Trump administration. While Trump may believe that he has affected a material change in U.S. policy, experts tell VICE World News that little is likely to change in terms of aerial attacks and civilians will continue to be put at risks by U.S. strikes.

The United States has been conducting attacks in Somalia since at least 2007, with airstrikes skyrocketing over the last four years. From 2007 to 2017, under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the U.S. military carried out 42 declared air strikes. Under President Trump, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has conducted more than 200 air attacks against members of al-Shabaab and the Islamic State. The latest occurred on January 7 when, according to an official press release, “U.S. Africa Command forces conducted one airstrike in the vicinity of Saaxa Weyne.”  Five “al-Shabaab members” were killed, according to AFRICOM. 


Despite nearly two decades of air strikes, ground operations by U.S. commandos, security assistance to local forces—including the creation, training and equipping of the Danab Advanced Infantry Brigade, Somalia’s most competent infantry unit—America’s undeclared war against al-Shabaab has failed to achieve its stated goal to “develop security in Somalia.” 

In fact, multiple U.S. government and independent analyses have found the opposite to be true: A recent assessment by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency found that the threat by terrorist groups in East Africa has increased over the past 3 years, a mid-2020 report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a defense department research institution, found Al Shabaab remains “the most active militant Islamist group in Africa, ” and a study published last year by the United Nations University called attention to the “limitations” of the U.S. air campaign and its propensity to “merely disperse al-Shabaab to other areas, including to Mogadishu, [the nation’s capital] from which they can easily regroup.” 


A U.S. inspector’s general’s report to Congress, issued in November, offered an especially scathing assessment of American and allied efforts, writ large. “Despite many years of sustained Somali, U.S., and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded,” the report said. “Al-Shabaab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests.” The report also notes that the Somali government “has not met milestones for the development of its security forces,” while al-Shabaab “remains adaptive, resilient, and capable of attacking Western and partner interests in Somalia and East Africa.”  

Until Trump’s withdrawal announcement, AFRICOM claimed that maintaining a troop presence and footprint on the ground was critical to its missions on the continent, especially for an archipelago of bases in East Africa that stretched from Djibouti to Kenya, with the largest concentration of outposts in Somalia itself. “Strategic access to Africa, its airspace, and its surrounding waters is vital to U.S. national security,” AFRICOM commander General Stephen J. Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.  


Until Trump’s withdrawal announcement, AFRICOM claimed that maintaining a troop presence and footprint on the ground was critical to its missions on the continent.

In a September webinar, Anderson, the chief of U.S. commandos in Africa, argued that there was imperative for America to have a presence in Somalia since it “sits on strategic terrain” and that instability there could destabilize Ethiopia and Kenya. (SOCAFRICA failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on whether Anderson’s stance has changed in the wake of President Trump’s ordered withdrawal.)

What is clear, however, is that AFRICOM had not planned for a drawdown, much less a withdrawal. This year, according to formerly secret 2020 AFRICOM planning documents obtained by VICE World News, the command was actively seeking to entrench and expand its footprint in Somalia. The internal files list the locations of six bases in the country, one more than the number in 2019. A new outpost at Dhusamareeb joined existing facilities at Baledogle, Bosasso, Galcayo, Kismayo, and Mogadishu. In September, AFRICOM spokesman John Manley told VICE World News that the new outpost was key to efforts alongside Somali forces geared toward “enhancing regional security.”

The documents, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, note that AFRICOM had recommended to the Defense Department that several sites be recategorized as enduring locations, transforming the bases at Bosasso and Galcayo into “semi-permanent” outposts and recategorizing the bases at Baledogle and Mogadishu as “cooperative security locations,” the same designation as the $100 million U.S. drone base across the continent at Agadez, Niger. The files also show that while Somalia had overtaken Niger as the African nation with the most U.S. bases, Special Operations Command Africa was actively seeking to expand the U.S. footprint further through, the documents said, the “establishment of one or more new [contingency locations] in Somalia to support Somali National Security Force development.”


According to formerly secret 2020 AFRICOM planning documents obtained by VICE World News, the command was actively seeking to entrench and expand its footprint in Somalia.

AFRICOM’s Manley refused to comment on how the withdrawal would affect bases, air strikes, and ground missions, replying to specific questions with generic talking points little different than the Pentagon’s statement. “Our presence in Somalia will decrease significantly but U.S. forces will remain in the region and our tasks and commitment to partners remain unchanged,” he told VICE World News by email. “This action is not a withdrawal and an end to our efforts but a reposition to continue our efforts in East Africa.”  

Regardless of the euphemisms employed, the new policy is unlikely to dramatically change the U.S. counterterrorism program in Somalia, Elizabeth Shackelford, a former State Department Foreign Service officer who served in Somalia, told VICE World News. She characterized the withdrawal as “smoke and mirrors to make it look like Trump is keeping a promise to bring troops home,” but did warn that there could still be significant costs. “This will have a destabilizing effect on Somalia because it's rushed,” Shackelford said. “I expect there will be a gap while they readjust but find more costly and less efficient ways to do it without a footprint in-country—like enhancing the work of contractors or doing short-term deployments.”


Following a January 2020 attack by al Shabaab on a longtime U.S. outpost in Manda Bay, Kenya that killed three Americans, AFRICOM began pressing for clearance to carry out drone strikes in portions of eastern Kenya, expanding the long-running drone war in East Africa.   

Experts who spoke to VICE World News speculated that a significant number of the approximately 800 U.S. forces based in Somalia will be relocated to Manda Bay and other bases in neighboring Kenya as well as two key bases in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier and Chabelley Airfield, although AFRICOM has been tight-lipped on the particulars. “At this time, for operational security reasons, I really can't get into the specifics you are requesting as we continue to plan what this repositioning looks like long term,” said Manley, noting only that the command is “repositioning our forces within East Africa.”

But experts warn that this reshuffling of personnel may put civilians at increased risk. “My concern is that the withdrawal of forces could reduce the amount of accurate intelligence the U.S. receives to inform its air strikes, and that could mean more targeting errors, and more civilians killed,” said Eviatar.  “It also leaves the U.S. more reliant on Somali armed forces, and some local troops may have different interests than the U.S.”

AFRICOM has admitted to killing only five civilians in four separate attacks over the last 13 years. “We employ a rigorous airstrike and assessment process while operating in a complex and challenging environment,” said U.S. Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the chief of Africa Command on the release of AFRICOM’s latest civilian casualty or “CIVCAS” assessment. “In my 38 years of experience, including combat operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, I have never seen more pain-staking efforts to strike with precision and limit any harm to civilians.” But an investigation by Amnesty International found that in just nine airstrikes, 21 civilians were killed and 11 others were injured. According to the U.K.-based air strike monitoring group Airwars, evidence suggests that as many as 13 Somali civilians were killed by U.S. attacks in 2020 alone, and between 69 and 142 civilians have been killed in U.S. strikes since 2007.  

Shackleford, now a fellow with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, believes that the withdrawal could exacerbate existing civilian casualty issues issues and lead to further discrepancies between independent reporting and AFRICOM’s assessments. “It could be a blow to U.S. accountability for civilian casualties because they are further insulated from reports and information about them, even as strikes will continue,” she told VICE World News. “It's easier to turn a blind eye or feign ignorance when you have no troops on the ground.”  

Even with boots on the ground, AFRICOM has shown little interest in conducting rigorous civilian casualty investigations. In 2019, for example, researchers from Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute and the Center for Civilians in Conflict conducted a civilian casualty workshop with AFRICOM personnel. A review of the command’s civilian casualty assessment process revealed that, between 2016 and 2019, AFRICOM failed to conduct even a single interview with civilian witnesses of its airstrikes. Nothing has changed in the time since, Manley told VICE World News last month. “The families and victims of their actions should be compensated,” Abdullahi Hassan, Somalia Researcher at Amnesty International told VICE World News. “Whether they are in Somalia or not, accountability mechanisms should not be forgotten.”

Experts warn that this reshuffling of personnel may put civilians at increased risk.

Experts told VICE World News that they expected civilians to be at continued risk from U.S. airstrikes. “Withdrawing U.S. troops may be a quick political win domestically, but the U.S. also needs to think about its impact on the people who live where these conflicts are happening, as well as the long-term impact on U.S. security of bombing, killing and maiming civilians in other countries,” said Eviatar. “The U.S. should accompany any troop withdrawal with a plan for better protecting civilians from any future air strikes, and also for acknowledging and compensating the civilian survivors of its past strikes.” This was echoed by Hassan: “Withdrawing ground troops will not mean an end to the war in Somalia,” he told VICE World News. “Most of the air strikes the United States has carried out in Somalia originated in other countries, like Kenya and Djibouti.”    

Late last month, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, its support ships, and 5,500 sailors arrived off the coast of Somalia to provide added firepower and increased protection during the U.S. troop withdrawal. “The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group brings incredible capability and allows us to maintain pressure against regional threats throughout Operation Octave Quartz," said Anderson, who is now overseeing the redeployment of troops as the commander of Joint Task Force-Quartz. Despite having made the case for a sustained U.S. presence in Somalia late last year, Anderson fell into line. “We will execute this mission swiftly, methodically, and with additional forces to protect both our partners and US forces,” he announced. At the same time, he issued threats that bolster outside experts’s speculation that the U.S. war will continue unabated. “Enemies should expect continued pressure,” he warned, “and swift retribution if they choose to attack.”