In October 1993, 18 American troops died during a brutal, two-day firefight with militiamen in Mogadishu—a shocking defeat that hastened the end of a painful, expensive U.S.-led peace operation in Somalia.
Twenty years later, Americans returned to Somalia—under very different circumstances. Last October, the Pentagon sent a small number of advisers to Somalia and launched a rare commando raid in the troubled country, where a fledgling U.S.-backed government is battling the militant Al Shabab group.
To be clear, the October deployments are not the first U.S. military actions in Somalia since the mid-’90s peacekeeping—the CIA, Special Operations Forces and drones have all quietly intervened over the years. But the recent American missions do represent an important step toward a greater Pentagon presence in Somalia.
As late as 2012, U.S. Africa Command said Somalia was a no-go zone for U.S. troops. Then in October, U.S. commandos launched a raid into Somalia to capture an Al Shabab officer. Under heavy fire, the Americans withdrew empty-handed.
The same month, the Pentagon sent a three-man Military Coordination Cell to Mogadishu. The Americans provide advice and other support—like intelligence information—to the Somali government and the African Union mission there.
AFRICOM’s annual review for 2013—just released—highlights the recent American involvement. “Precise partnered and unilateral [U.S.] operations continue to play limited but important roles in weakening Al Shabab,” said Army Gen. David Rodriguez, AFRICOM commander.
Rodriguez was likely referring to the American raid, as well as U.S. support for a French attempt to rescue a captured intelligence agent—which also failed—early last year. AFRICOM declined to say whether there were more U.S. operations in Somalia in 2013.
These events might seem minor when compared to what happens in Afghanistan every day. But Somalia is not Afghanistan—in military circles, there’s a stigma attached to the country that exceeds even Afghanistan’s bad vibes.
American forces formed the backbone of U.N. peacekeeping operations in Somalia the early 1990s. The interventions were dogged by complex and confusing objectives. In 1993, U.S. Sen. Fritz Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, called Somalia “Vietnam all over again.”
The experience of the ’90s had a lasting effect on American foreign policy in the region. In Washington, any talk of sending troops to Somalia immediately raises eyebrows.
The Pentagon declined to return to Somalia even as the humanitarian and security situation deteriorated in the mid-2000s. Instead, the U.S. trained African peacekeepers to fight Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked insurgent and terror group.
When the U.S. military did strike, it was usually from a distance with warplanes, cruise missiles and drones. Inside Somalia, the CIA secretly worked with local forces against Al Shabab.
U.S. commandos reconnoitered the Somali coast starting as early as 2007, and in 2012 slipped into Somalia to rescue hostages from Al Shabab. The White House and the Pentagon insisted they only approved the 2012 raid because of the deteriorating health of American hostage Jessica Buchanan.
Army Gen. Carter Ham, former AFRICOM commander, mentioned the 2012 operation in passing in a 2013 statement. An AFRICOM annual review that year didn’t mention any other American activities in the country.
Now, a few commando raids and three American advisers hardly amount to an invasion. Drones remain an important tool in Somalia and the Pentagon is still focused on training African troops to handle Somalia duties mostly on their own.
AFRICOM stresses that the cell in Mogadishu is not an “advance team” preparing the way for any sort of larger mission. Its remit is to provide assistance only if asked. The Somali government and the A.U. are definitely not asking for a large-scale U.S. mission.
But they are asking for more active limited American involvement, if last year’s activities are any indication. The Pentagon seems willing to give them that. And that means Americans are back in Somalia.