Rep. Matt Gaetz, Progressives Jointly Call for U.S. Military to Leave Somalia

The alliance is the latest sign of an emerging bipartisan anti-war coalition in Congress.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 18: Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, April 18, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., leaves a meeting in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on April 18, 2023. Photo: CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

A measure to withdraw most U.S. troops from Somalia, just months after the Biden administration sent them back there, is expected to garner support from far-right Republicans and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus when it comes up for a scheduled vote on Thursday.

The author of the War Powers Resolution, Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, tweeted this week that Somalia, in the horn of Africa, “is not a vital national security concern.” Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. — the chair and deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is comprised of more than 100 members of Congress — have confirmed they will vote yes on the measure, according to sources familiar with their thinking. “Members of Progressive Caucus leadership will vote for the Somalia war powers resolution,” said a congressional staffer. “House progressives remain principled in their commitment to upholding the constitutional authority of Congress’s sole powers over war and peace, a check designed by the framers to limit needless conflicts led by the Executive.”

The alliance is the latest sign of an emerging bipartisan anti-war coalition in the House of Representatives that has found common ground on measures to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and end U.S. military support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. “Warmongers in Congress still outnumber those who wish to end forever wars, but that will never undermine our determination to keep up this fight,” Gaetz told The Intercept.

“Forcing a war powers vote is the boldest action taken by any member of Congress on Somalia in recent decades,” said Erik Sperling of Just Foreign Policy, an advocacy group critical of mainstream Washington foreign policy that backs the resolution.

The measure was voted down on Thursday, with 102 votes in favor and 321 against. Only 50 Democrats and 52 Republicans supported pulling U.S. troops out of Somalia.

There are about 500 U.S. troops in Somalia conducting counterterrorism operations against the Islamist militant group al-Shabab and, to a lesser extent, a local Islamic State affiliate. The Biden administration, like its predecessors, has argued that the war against al-Shabab is covered under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed more than 20 years ago to pursue those responsible for the September 11 attacks. Al-Shabab only emerged in 2006, five years after it was enacted.

The United States has provided billions of dollars in counterterrorism assistance to Somalia over the last 16 years, according to a new report by the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs shared exclusively with The Intercept. The U.S. has conducted more than 275 air strikes and commando raids in the embattled nation over that same span, with the CIA and elite troops creating local proxy forces to conduct low-profile operations.

Since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the Pentagon has conducted 25 declared airstrikes in Somalia, five times the number carried out during President Barack Obama’s first term but far fewer than the record high set by President Donald Trump, whose administration launched 208 declared attacks from 2017 to 2021. The U.S. has also continued its ground combat there. In January, for example, U.S. commandos killed Bilal al-Sudani, a key ISIS official, and 10 other ISIS fighters in northern Somalia.

“The U.S. is not simply contributing to conflict in Somalia, but has, rather, become integral to the inevitable continuation of conflict in Somalia.”

America’s undeclared war in Somalia has become a key driver of violence in the country, according to the Costs of War report. “The U.S. is not simply contributing to conflict in Somalia, but has, rather, become integral to the inevitable continuation of conflict in Somalia,” according to Ẹniọlá Ànúolúwapọ Ṣóyẹmí, a lecturer in political philosophy and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. “U.S. counterterrorism policies are … ensuring that the conflict continues in perpetuity.”

U.S. Army Spc. Kevin Martin, junior sniper, assigned to the 1-186th Infantry Battalion, Task Force Guardian, Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, provides security for a 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron (EAS) C-130J Super Hercules during unloading operations at an unidentified location in Somalia Sunday, June 28, 2020. No country has been involved in Somalia's future as much as the United States but now the Trump administration is thinking of withdrawing the several hundred U.S. military troops from the nation at what some experts call the worst possible time. (Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ruano/Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa via AP)

U.S. Army troops provide security for a 75th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron Super Hercules during unloading operations in Somalia on June 28, 2020.

Photo: Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ruano/Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa via AP

The Pentagon’s own analyses also bear this out, noting a 23 percent rise in violent activity involving al-Shabab from 2021 to 2022. “The most striking trend in Somalia over the past year was the 133 percent increase in the level of fatalities linked to militant Islamist group violence, primarily al Shabaab,” according to a February report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Defense Department research institution. Attacks involving improvised explosive devices also spiked 34 percent, and the total number of fatalities linked to al-Shabab jumped from 2,606 in 2021 to 6,225 last year, a record number that exceeds the totals of 2020 and 2021 combined. Al-Shabab attacks have increased 60 percent since 2017, putting the recent figures in line with a long-term trend.

A coalition of advocacy organizations led by Demand Progress Action and Just Foreign Policy, including the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, the Libertarian Institute, and Veterans for Peace, called on members of Congress to support Gaetz’s resolution.

“The Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973 is clear: the President can only introduce U.S. Armed Forces into hostilities or ‘into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances’ through a declaration of war, specific statutory authorization, or in response to an attack on the U.S. or armed forces,” reads a letter the groups sent to members of Congress on Wednesday that was shared exclusively with The Intercept. “None of these requirements are met in the current situation in Somalia. Therefore, U.S. troops cannot be placed in harm’s way in Somalia unless and until Congress explicitly authorizes them to be deployed there for a specific mission.”

The United States has poured more than $2.5 billion in counterterrorism funding into Somalia since 2007, Ṣóyẹmí; that figure includes State Department assistance but little spending by the Pentagon and no data from the intelligence community. “The precise amount the U.S. has spent on counterterrorism in Somalia is unknown, and likely untraceable,” she wrote. An anonymous congressional staffer told Ṣóyẹmí that the costs of U.S. military operations in Somalia, including U.S. troop maintenance, drone strikes, and the total funds spent on U.S.-backed proxy forces like the Puntland Security Force and the Danab Brigade is unknown to U.S. officials and “an act of Congress” would be needed to uncover it.

The United States has funded, trained, and partnered with Danab since 2011. Exclusive documents obtained by The Intercept show that the United States has provided the force with ammunition, weapons parts, body armor, combat boots, and other vital materiel. In 2017, 38-year-old Navy SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed during an “advise, assist, and accompany” mission with Danab.

Last month, Gen. Michael Langley, the chief of U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, touted U.S. and Somali counterterrorism efforts. “We’re supporting the federal government of Somalia in this ongoing campaign to disrupt terrorist operations in Somalia,” he said on a conference call with The Intercept and reporters from other media outlets. “And so we’re helping [President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud] address his complex security strategy by building capacity and also capability within the Somali National Army, or some of their special forces, the Danab forces.” Langley said that he was “very cautiously optimistic on how they’re progressing.”

Yet the proxy force has been implicated in the abuse and arbitrary arrest of civilians. “There is ample evidence that specialist contingents of the Somali National Army trained by the U.S. — in particular, Danab … have regularly been misused by sections of the Somali political elite and the Somali Federal Government,” wrote ?óy?mí. “In the most troubling cases, they have been used to attack and enforce orders on non-terrorist targets including political opponents.”

AFRICOM did not respond to multiple questions from The Intercept about the U.S. presence in Somalia, the state of the U.S. counterterror campaign, and Gaetz’s comments on the U.S. war in the Horn of Africa.

“The lack of transparency that surrounds U.S. counterterror spending in and on Somalia suggests that through Departments of State and Defense spending, the U.S. has become an integral actor in the war in Somalia and is not merely an external ‘peacekeeper,’” wrote ?óy?mí. “The U.S. approach, therefore, fosters discord between centralised actors in [Somalia’s capital] Mogadishu and local groups within the wider society. … As such, U.S. military training in Somalia makes the potential for conflict inevitable.”

For Gaetz, the solution is simple: a withdrawal within a year. “Congress, and only Congress, has the sole authority to declare war. A 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against Afghanistan should not be used to authorize our military’s presence in Somalia,” he told The Intercept. “Instead of pouring more resources into a never-ending conflict, our country should prioritize its own needs and focus on issues that directly impact our neighbors.

Update: April 27, 2023 4:55 p.m. ET
This story has been updated with the result of the House vote on the measure to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia.

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