This week President Donald Trump signed an executive order extending a presidential declaration of a national emergency concerning Somalia for another year, calling the Islamist insurgency plaguing that country an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the US.
But even if that is the last extension of the declaration, US defense officials say the mission in the country is likely to take years to complete.
The fight there hinges on US Special Operations Forces being able to train an elite Somali army unit capable of defeating al Qaeda-linked militants on the ground. The commitment to the East African nation comes after the President has signaled a desire to reduce US troop levels across the globe and as the administration is in the process of withdrawing forces from Syria.
While officials say the effort is making progress, they tell CNN that the US training mission is likely to not be completed until 2026.
For nearly two years, a small team of US Special Operations forces has been embedded with the Somali National Army, assisting in the fight against the militant group Al-Shabaab. As well as advising on airstrikes and ground assaults, the Navy SEAL-led team’s primary task is to train and build Somalia its own elite light infantry force.
Named Danab, which in Somali means lightning, the force currently numbers only about 500 soldiers, too few to carry out operations in a country with a coastline almost as long as the east coast of the US. The plan, US defense officials say, is to eventually build Danab into a force of 3,000 soldiers capable of clearing militants from villages and towns across Somalia.
“The plan is to build two companies a year, with the end-state being five battalions and a brigade headquarters element,” Becky Farmer, a spokesperson for Africa Command which oversees US military operations on the continent, told CNN in a statement.
“We think it’s going to take approximately seven years for the Somalis to absorb all of these forces,” a defense official familiar with the US counterterrorism strategy in Somalia told CNN.
“If everything works out and however many miracles line up to make this happen it could go faster, and it could go slower,” he added.
A quarter century after the events surrounding “Black Hawk Down,” the incident that killed 18 US soldiers in Mogadishu, the US military finds itself more actively engaged in Somalia than at any time since. Though the US has higher troop levels in Niger and Djibouti, Somalia is the only place in Africa where the US military is regularly carrying out airstrikes against enemy forces.
The Pentagon has about 500 to 600 personnel in Somalia according to US Africa Command.
While US military advisers have been in Somalia since at least 2013, the effort has gotten a major boost under the Trump Administration, which volunteered to undertake the Danab advisory mission in 2017 in addition to expanding drone strikes, and in December reopened the American diplomatic mission in Mogadishu for the first time since 1991.
Trump authorized the military to carry out precision strikes targeting Al-Shabaab in March 2017. Prior to that the US military was authorized to conduct airstrikes only in defense of advisers on the ground.
So far this year, at least 255 fighters from Al-Shabaab have been killed in 30 airstrikes, according to figures released by US Africa Command. In 2018 the US conducted 47 airstrikes targeting Al-Shabaab, killing about 337 militants. In 2017 the US carried out 35 airstrikes and in 2016 it conducted just 15.
“The bottom line is we’re taking formations and fighters and leaders off the battlefield. And that is having effect on the network,” Brig. Gen. William West, the deputy director of operations for Africa Command, told CNN in a statement.
The increase in airstrikes though has been criticized by some members of Congress and outside groups like Amnesty International, which has accused the US of killing civilians in Somalia.
While the US military has rejected Amnesty’s allegations, US Africa Command announced earlier this month that it had determined that one of its 2018 drone strikes had killed two civilians, the first ever such acknowledgment by the US military in Somalia.
US military officials stress that the airstrikes are only one component of the US military’s overall campaign in Somalia.