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Deploying Troops for Democracy

In May 2022, President Joe Biden authorized the deployment of about 450 American troops to Somalia. This decision came over a year after former President Donald Trump withdrew about 750 American troops from the country in December 2020, which was one component of the troop drawdown in the global counterterrorism (CT) mission.


So why did Biden, who completed his predecessor’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, redeploy American troops to Somalia for a CT mission? The answer lies in Biden’s vision of America’s grand strategy and can be summed up in one word: democracy. The U.S. cannot decouple democracy from CT in Somalia.


Voting from a fortified aircraft hangar, members of parliament—rather than the people—decided the 2022 Somali presidential election. The president of Somalia has been elected this way since 1969 due to the threat posed by al-Shabaab—an al-Qaeda affiliate terrorist group operating in Somalia—and other terrorist groups. Al-Shabaab has hindered Somalia’s democracy for decades, yet the country remains (at least somewhat) democratic, with voting power resting in clans rather than individuals.


Parliament elected a new president, and there was a peaceful transition of power. The long-term American goal is to improve Somalia’s democracy. Restoring the American CT mission to Somalia will stabilize Somalia to the point where it can become more democratic by creating an environment where individuals can vote safely without fearing al-Shabab.


Trump’s withdrawal from Somalia received bipartisan criticism (alongside criticism from the Somali government) because the boots-on-the-ground approach was working to combat al-Shabaab, according to former General Stephen Townsend, the head of the U.S. Africa Command, and other senior U.S. military leaders. More than one year later, the policy change has given al-Shabab a more remarkable ability to attack Americans. Overall, it has harmed democracy in Somalia. This is evidenced by the continuation of indirect presidential elections and the need for extensive security measures, such as the location of the election being a fortified aircraft hangar needed for Parliament to vote safely.


The chess game could become three-dimensional with Russia hopping in, just as it has all over Africa. Russia sees a crisis in a struggling democratic country, and it works to exacerbate that crisis and overthrow democracy, often via the manipulation of domestic forces. This is Russia’s playbook in the Central African Republic’s civil war (where the president’s national security advisor is a Russian official) and Mali, which experienced a coup connected to Russia in 2020.


American troops in Somalia will not only help Somali special forces defeat al-Shabab, but it will also protect democracy from potential crises like the permanent cancellation of elections due to a prolonged terrorist threat. The U.S. should thus continue with President Biden’s plan but pursue a more flexible response by not capping the number of troops it may deploy to Somalia.


(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author, whose information can be found below.)


LJ Trevette is an undergraduate student from Georgetown University where he majors in International Politics, concentrating in International Security Studies, and minoring in Russian. He focuses on U.S. national security policy, nuclear weapons and military operations. He will graduate with honors after the completion of his thesis, which examines the role of signaling nuclear first use in shielding conventional aggression. He is affiliated with the Alexander Hamilton Society and the American Enterprise Institute.


Sources: 

Ali, Mohamud. “Somalia’s elections – where the people don’t vote.” BBC News. 14 April, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-61083959.

Ali, Mohamud. “Somalia’s new president elected by 327 people.” BBC News. 16 May, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-61438047.

Biden, Joseph, Sullivan, Jacob, and the National Security Council. “Interim National Security Strategic Guidance.” White House. March, 2021. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NSC-1v2.pdf.

Feldscher, Jacqueline. “Biden Orders US Troop Back to Somalia, Reverses Trump Withdrawal.” Defense One. 16 May, 2022. https://www.defenseone.com/policy/2022/05/biden-orders-us-troops-back-somalia-reverses-trump-withdrawal/366980/.

Harding, Luke and Burke, Jason. “Leaked documents reveal Russian effort to exert influence in Africa.” The Guardian. 11 June, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/11/leaked-documents-reveal-russian-effort-to-exert-influence-in-africa.

Savage, Charlie and Schmitt, Eric. “Biden Approves Plan to Redeploy Several Hundred Ground Forces Into Somalia.” The New York Times. 16 May, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/16/us/politics/biden-military-somalia.html.

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