America needs to get out of “Africa’s Afghanistan”

By Willis Krumholz

After the ambush that killed four American soldiers in Niger last year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has ordered a review of America’s counterterrorism role in Africa. Because of the little-noticed but sizeable increase of American troops on the continent, it is high time that policymakers step back and consider the big picture before America becomes entrenched in Africa even further.

Consider Somalia, the perennially troubled country in the Horn of Africa. 25 years after the tragic Battle of Mogadishu, on which the film Black Hawk Down is based, American troops are back in Somalia. US military personnel in the country went from only about 50 in 2016 to more than 500 today. Since January 2017, U.S. forces carried out 48 airstrikes in Somalia, compared to just 14 in 2016, and 11 in 2015.

It doesn’t end there. Six new outposts in the Horn of Africa have been established this year alone. One of those is the newly-built Baledogle base—“B-dog” in soldier-lingo—in Somalia, which Vice News has learned contains room for more than 800 American troops. Already, Somalia is the third largest area of U.S. activity in Africa, behind only Djibouti and Niger.

The Pentagon has said that our troops are in Somalia to train and assist African Union (AU) peacekeepers and Somali National Army Special Forces in their fight against al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, a terror-group that has plagued the Horn of Africa for years. In reality, much of the fighting is increasingly being carried out by Americans.

The mission in Somalia is far from clear, too, as U.S. troops attempt to thread the needle between propping up an incompetent government in desperate need of legitimacy, and doing so much for the Somali government that it becomes even more infantilized and totally dependent on America’s support. The mission of fighting jihadists is easier said than done as well, as there is always an endless reservoir of discontented young men ready to take up arms.

That’s why General Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), has promised only “slow” progress in Somalia, though he refuses to call our operations there a “war.”

And America’s burden in Somalia looks set to grow unless a conscious decision to withdraw is made. The AU plans on withdrawing its forces by 2020, while the U.S. plans to stay behind. Somali operators, meanwhile, don’t have much autonomy of their own, and are directly under American control.

This should be concerning, for the simple fact that the U.S. military is already overstretched. With well over 7,000 troops on the continent, the U.S. has troops in 50 of Africa’s 54 countries, and is conducting combat missions in roughly 20 African countries.

On the other side of Africa, our operations in Niger have run into significant trouble, which is chiefly what sparked the Pentagon’s reevaluation. A report determined that the Niger mission leading to four American deaths failed on account of poor planning, and after the Nigerian troops supporting the Americans turned tail and ran. And elsewhere, we have troops in both Syria and Iraq, and are fast-nearing two decades spent in Afghanistan, where the Taliban still controls a good portion of the countryside.

Aside from the misallocation of resources, it should be obvious that it is rather impossible to kill all of the world’s “bad guys.” On this point, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) said it best:

“I don’t know if we need 1,000 troops in Niger. You have this not just a teachable moment on the tactics … but on the broader strategic approach to special operations forces to the National Defense Strategy. If we’re putting our highest value trained soldiers on capture or kill missions, [the targets] should be individuals who threaten the country, our country.” 

But trying to kill all the world’s bad guys, and failing to prioritize missions based on actual threats to the homeland, is exactly what Washington is doing today. That’s why America’s defense budget of $700 billion—near record-levels in real or inflation-adjusted terms, and greater than spending during Reagan’s defense buildup to defeat a rival nuclear superpower, a threat far greater than anything we face today—is seen as so necessary to our politicians. Republicans were fond of saying that Obama’s defense budgets hollowed out the military, but Obama’s budgets were still higher in real terms than the defense-spending during Reagan’s eight years.

The difference between now and the halcyon 1980s is that we have so many troops in so many places, and so much bureaucratic waste, that $700 billion doesn’t go as far and doesn’t deliver strategic victories like it used to.

But $700 billion is a ton of money. That’s building the most expensive aircraft carrier we have ever built, the USS Gerald R. Ford, over 53 times. And it should be noted that the USS Gerald R. Ford, which costs a cool $13 billion, still has loads of technical problems compared to previous less-complicated and less-expensive models.

America’s foreign policy needs to set priorities and focus on core interests: America’s security, our prosperity, and our way of life. Our economic, diplomatic, and military power needs to rebuild and reload—we need to get back to the basics. That means more-responsible defense contracts and reducing bureaucratic waste at the Pentagon, but it also means prioritizing where we place American troops.

A rule is in order: No mission should be undertaken unless America has a clear and vital interest, a realistic definition of success, a viable path to achieve that required political end state, and an eventual exit-strategy.

Policymakers must answer voters’ fundamental questions: Will things be better after we leave? Can we make things better in the long-term? Are there unintended consequences that intervention might cause, and do those risks outweigh the potential rewards? The final question politicians must ask themselves is the most important: Would it be worth sending my son or daughter to this place, maybe to die, in order to accomplish America’s objective?

If members of Congress were forced to answer these questions when it comes to Somalia, an honest assessment—especially on the latter question—would cause America to get out immediately.

Willis L Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry.

This piece was originally published by The Federalist on June 8, 2018. Read more HERE.