In the early hours of October 5, two squads of U.S. Special Forces slinked ashore in the small fishing town of Barawe, 250 km south of Mogadishu on the Somali coast. As the teams treaded quietly towards an unassuming two story structure a few hundred meters from the shore, they were spotted by a lone Al Shabaab fighter, smoking nonchalantly. Without raising alarm, he slipped through the building’s front doors and alerted the soldiers of the impending attack.
Within minutes, the neighborhood erupted with gunfire, as the Shabaab fighters confronted the American special forces with deadly intent. While the exact moment of retreat is not known, the SEALs, known as DEVGRU, or more popularly as “Seal Team Six”, pulled back to the coast, boarded their vessels, and vanished into the breaking dawn.
Despite their failed attempt to abscond with their prize — a prominent Al Shabaab leader — a concurrent operation on the streets of Libya netted one suspected terrorist for the Americans. That morning, while Somali and Libyan citizens tried to assemble what little information the Americans had left behind, one thing seemed clear: this was only the beginning.
This was not the first time Somalia has seen the bootprints of American special forces. Whether it was the Delta Force Rangers in 1991 — during the infamous Blackhawk Down debacle — or the US-sponsored anti-terrorism training of East African military units this year, U.S. Special Forces have been regular actors in the African security space. Prized for their tenacity and Hollywood-engendered lore, however, special operations are also being lauded for their potential within a cash-strapped U.S. military infrastructure. According to experts, these shadow warriors of U.S. foreign policy are set to play an expanded role in Africa’s Central and Western territories.
In October, the United States Army announced a “first-of-its-kind” program which would place a 3,500 member brigade at the disposal of American commanders conducting offensive operations, training security forces, or running reconnaissance on the continent. This group will be responsible for more an 100 missions in the next 12 months. “Missions that were once performed largely by Special Operations forces, including the Army’s Green Berets, are now falling to regular infantry troops like members of the Second Armored Brigade Combat Team, nicknamed the Dagger Brigade,” according to The New York Times.
In early November, Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, a commander of the U.S. Marine Corps, speculated that security teams removed from Afghanistan next year could be re-deployed off the West African coast to address increased pirate activity in the region. The speculative program, which could include as many as 550 Marines, would fall under the command of a crisis-response unit currently located in Morón, Spain, and report to officials in AFRICOM.
This week, U.S. Special Operations Commander, Navy Admiral William H. McRaven, noted that the special forces will also be an integral part of American defense and security operations in the region.
“I think we’re going to be ready to go now and in the future,” said Adm. McRaven, at a conference on the future of American defense. He also noted that U.S. Special Operation Command (SOCOM) is currently providing troops with language and cultural training to make them more effective in regions like Africa, Asia and Latin America.
That same afternoon, Adm. McRaven re-enforced the official party line, that a “whole of government” approach would still be the most effective way to address international security threats. But shrinking budgets, withering public support for large-footprint operations, and the specter of terrorism on the African continent, only presages the primacy of special operations in places like West and Central Africa.
The Western Front
In 2010, the governments of Nigeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger set up a joint command to tackle the growing threat of terrorism in the region. By 2011, security experts expressed concern over northwestern Chad, thought to serve as transit point for drug traffickers and extremist elements traversing the continent. In March 2011, anti-Moammar Gaddafi forces, protesting in Libya, were attacked by government forces, drawing international attention and eventually U.S.-backed NATO strikes, as the country spiraled into temporary chaos.
In January 2012, an extremist group called Boko Haram, located in the northeast of Nigeria, killed nearly 200 people in a coordinated attack against non-Muslims and civilians, drawing the attention of international observers. Also in early 2012, attacks in Mali’s north by Tuareg factions — some who openly associated with extremist or jihadist allies — sparked additional international concern. By April, Tuareg rebels seized control of Mali’s capital, and — after a failed attempt by pro-government factions to unseat them — aligned themselves with terrorist-linked Ansar Dine. They then consolidated power, punishing non-Muslims and opponents until a UN sanctioned intervention by France dispersed the Islamists and restored (temporary) control of the capital in late 2012.
This year, sixteen individuals and organizations have been added to the United States Foreign Terrorist Organization’s list, of which seven have ties to terrorist groups in Africa. This list includes Boko Haram, Ansaru (also located in Nigeria) and Ansar Dine.
“Today we are fighting extremism of another type, a medieval mindset that doesn’t recognize any civility, and it is international and it is a threat to our global humanity.” adding that the intelligence and defense communities “stand as vanguards of our security, fighting this barbarism as far away from our shores as we can engage them.”
In his toast, Adm. McRaven consciously harkened back to an outmoded period of American foreign policy, noting that the OSS Society’s decision to honor the leader of American Special Operations Forces should reassure “doubters” that there will be a steady return to earlier times.
“I often hear disillusioned officers and noncommissioned officers ask, ‘Why aren’t we more like the OSS?’” McRaven asked the invited audience. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I am here tonight to tell you that the OSS is back.”
It is important to recall that the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, was formed in World War II, lasted three years, and served to centralize American espionage activities behind enemy lines. It was an institution that, in broad strokes, McRaven is attempted to rebuild today.
Earlier this year, Adm. McRaven was rebuked by Congress after his proposal, which sought to centralize hundreds of operational commanders in a single office in Washington, was tabled due to budgetary constraints. Proposal notwithstanding, Adm. McRaven retains the power to deploy the nearly 11,000 Special Operations forces “where he determines intelligence and world events indicate they are most needed.” If Congress decides to green light McRaven’s proposal, called the Global SOF (Special Operations forces) Network, nearly 70 special operations personnel would be added to the Washington office — a staff that would be five times the size of US Central Command and seven times that of AFRICOM.
But this “centralization” might be a harbinger for future operations with the continent. On Nov. 14, AFRICOM disclosed that the command would lose a tenth — or $40 million — of their annual budget due to fiscal limitations, or “sequestration”, in the United States. General David Rodriguez, commander of AFRICOM, told reporters that the cuts would shrink the size but ideally not the number of AFRICOM’s operations on the continent.
AFRICOM, which has been headquartered in Germany since its christening in 2007, will continue to serve in its training and military-support capacity retaining the 5,000 American officers it deploys on the continent, Gen. Rodriguez said. But with AFRICOM’s limitations, combined with the potential increase in funding for SOCOM, the African special operations command, SOCAFRICA, may well take the lead in many of the kinetic operations on African soil.
“To leave the continent unattended, to not work alongside our African partners to empower them to manage their security challenges, would leave them vulnerable as a safe haven and a breeding ground for a brutal enemy that’s global in scope, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method.” said Brig. Gen. Linder this July, as he assumed control of the Special Operations forces in Africa. “It’s in our national interest – and it’s in the best interest of our global community,”
Many argue that the United States currently lacks an overarching military strategy to ensure the “interest of our global community.” Without such as road-map, branches of the military will struggle to to define where, when and why American power should be exerted. One reason for this ad-hoc approach, experts argue, is that the goalposts on the modern field of global security keep moving. Not since the Cold War has the United States faced an overwhelming, territorially defined enemy against which it can clearly state its interests.
According to scholar Richard Betts, the previous two decades of American strategy have come down to interpretations of classic organizing principles espoused by scholars such as John Mearsheimer, Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, but he notes a lack of consensus in today’s strategic environment. However, Betts wrote, “[t]erminal uncertainty … is not an option for statesmen.”
Andrew Krepinevich, in Foreign Affairs last December, attempted to tease out specific challenges for military planning in times of economic duress. Krepinevich argues that American policy in a “time of austerity” should be based not on control or conquest, so much as it should be focused on access and influence. Over time, that access will allow the United States to confront their enemies where they live, train and plot. And no where is the battle for influence more overt than Africa.
Unlike Afghanistan, West and Central Africa are largely devoid of U.S. military forces. Without that military footprint and absent arrangements requiring cooperation between local and U.S. officials, the cost of covert operations in Africa will be comparatively low. If Special Operations forces can train local security forces to address domestic security threats, they might shrink the “safe havens” for terrorism that American experts so often assume will give rise to tomorrow’s threats.
However, according to Caitriona Dowd and Clionadh Raleigh, writing in African Affairs this May, western specialists wrongly assume that terrorism in West and Central Africa is simply the local outgrowth of the faceless and amorphous “global jihad.” The authors note that while many of these local groups pledge allegiance to Al Qaeda to gain notoriety and/or support, most groups are more focused on national issues than on the global ideological struggle. Understanding these conditions, they write, is necessary to provide inroads for discussion, paths for negotiation and potential frameworks for eventual settlement. In this respect, U.S. commanders will have to address whether the use of special forces will erase a particular threat, further radicalize a enemy outfit, or inadvertently increase local support for terrorist elements.
Finally, if Afghanistan and Iraq have taught American security specialists anything, it is that who you work with is just as important as who you work against. As American forces “couple” with local security factions, careful screening of these “allies” will be essential. Training a security force that is highly capable but devoid of local support, will only create more problems than it solves.
“We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there are forces out there that … have questionable reputations,” McRaven said on Nov. 18, speaking specifically about SOCOM’s role in training Libyan security details. “I think we need to assume some risk in helping them. Libya would be a prime example. So right now, as we go forward to try and find a good way to build up the Libyan security forces so they are not run by militias.”
While understanding potential vulnerabilities is important, lost in this discussion — and even last week’s conference in Washington about the future of U.S. defense — is a meaningful extrapolation of the social, economic and military nexus of any engagement in Africa: how does the U.S. create comprehensive military responses to security threats that avoid unduly harming non-military interests?
If the above trends suggest a growing role for special operations forces in Africa, it will be critical to understand whether this practice will create opportunities for eventual peace, or merely the conditions for perpetual war.