U.S. Africa Command has announced the formation of Joint Task Force Quartz to oversee Operation Octave Quartz – a mission designated to reposition forces from Somalia and continue the assistance effort in Somalia. In early December President Trump and the Department of Defense announced that the United States would remove some 700 military personnel from Somalia. This is an action that Trump had mentioned several times over the past year but had not directed to take place.
Some national security observers applaud the action believing that the situation in Somalia is unsolvable. They point to decades of corruption and conflict and little to show for the millions of dollars and other sacrifices made in Somalia.
However, others say that we are ceding territory to an insurgent / terrorist group affiliated with al Qaeda. These critics say that the group poses a threat to the U.S. – pointing to the attack on Camp Simba in Kenya where Americans lost their lives and to the recent news of a potential plot by an al Shabaab member to hijack an aircraft to conduct an attack in the United States.
The withdrawal is being presented to the U.S. public as a ‘repositioning of forces’. Apparently some of these forces will move into neighboring countries. Djibouti and Kenya share a border with Somalia and have been hosts of U.S. military units and activities for many years.
Joint Task Force Quartz or JTF-Quartz is built around the headquarters of Special Operations Command – Africa. The mission is to oversee Operation Octave Quartz which will reposition U.S. forces from Somalia to other bases in East Africa. JTF Quartz is commanded by the Special Operations Command Africa (SOCAF) commander Maj. Gen. Dag Anderson.
JTF-Quartz components include:
- Joint Force Special Operations Component Command
- Joint Force Maritime Component Command
- Joint Air Component Coordination Element
JTF-Quartz priorities are:
- safely reposition U.S. forces
- protect U.S. forces through coordinated and increased force protection measures
- continue the mission to support regional partners and keep pressure on violent extremists
U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, met with African partners to provide reassurance of a sustained commitment to East Africa security. He says that the U.S. will continue to support enduring partners while maintaining pressure on violent extremist organizations in the region.
“To be clear, the U.S. is not withdrawing or disengaging from East Africa. We remain committed to helping our African partners build a more secure future. We also remain capable of striking Al-Shabaab at any time and place of our choosing – they should not test us.”
General Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, Dec 2020.
The U.S. and Somalia – Quick Timeline
Cold War. During the Cold War the Horn of Africa region was a focus of attention when it came to competition between the Soviet Union and the United States for influence and military presence. Somalia was a Soviet client state for many years (1970s).
Humanitarian Mission. In the early 1990s the United States committed US forces (including SOF) to Somalia in support of the United Nations humanitarian mission. This support ended when President Clinton ended the U.S. involvement in Somalia after the “Battle of Mogadishu” where 18 US. troops lost their lives during a raid on Somali militia leaders.
Failed State. Since the early 1990s Somalia has been a ‘failed state‘. It has suffered from famine, civil war, corruption, foreign intrigue and meddling, anarchy, and more. For many years it was the center of piracy operating from the coastal area of Somalia.
Fragile State. In 2012 the formation of a federal government provided a central authority that could provide services and security for the Somalia people. However, Somalia is still afflicted with division, political infighting, and corruption and remains a ‘fragile state’.
Al Shabaab. Somalia has been fighting an insurgency by an al Qaeda-affiliated group known as al Shabaab. The group controls much of Somalia – especially in the central and southern portions of the country. Its goal is to establish an Islamic state in Somalia.
US Support. The United States , along with other international partners, are working to stabilize the country and increase the effectiveness of the security forces. The US has been a key supporter of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), provides advice and training to the Somali security forces, and conducts counterterror (CT) missions within Somalia against al Shabaab and the local ISIS affiliate. U.S. Army Special Forces (and other organizations) have been instrumental in standing up the elite Danab Brigade.
Some Americans have lost their lives in the region including a CIA paramilitary officer (Nov 2020), a soldier assigned to 3rd Special Forces (June 2018), and contract pilots and an Army air traffic controller at Camp Simba (Jan 2020) just across the border in Kenya.
Security and Governance. The war in Somalia between government forces and al Shabaab has lasted almost 15 years. The prospects for peace is dismal. International donors are becoming reluctant to pay the expenses of the African Union forces that are deployed in Somalia to assist the government with security. Relations between Somalia and Kenya have frayed. Internal tensions exist between the different regions of Somalia are not good. The various clans and sub-clans in Somalia are constantly at odds with each other and may likely erupt into violence once again.
Great Power Competition. The Defense Department is now focused on strategic competition with China and Russia. To some, that means a shift to the Pacific and Eastern Europe with an emphasis on large conventional forces with the most modern ships, aircraft, and tanks. But to others, this means the competition is more likely to take place around the world in an environment where irregular warfare (some would say political warfare) is where the real competition is.
What Comes Next?
Future of Danab? The planned withdrawal of US forces will include the Special Forces contingent tasked with supporting the Danab special operations unit. Apparently a very small contingent of the US military will remain. The US has funded, trained, and partnered with this 1,000 man unit. It is commonly known that advisor work is best accomplished with person-to-person interaction. The premise that ‘advisor work’ can be accomplished remotely is largely dismissed by most members of the military that have been advisors. Certainly emails, Zoom sessions, video conferences, and phone calls have utility but nothing compares to an advisor on the ground sharing the battlespace.
It will be interesting (and perhaps disappointing) to observe the effectiveness of Danab over the next few years. There is the possibility that U.S. intelligence organizations will maintain a presence as well as private entities providing support, instruction, and advise through contract mechanisms with the State Department or Department of Defense.
Future Prospects? The Somali government has not met the milestones for the development of its security forces – goals set by the United States and the international community. In addition, it has not taken the steps for effective governance to alleviate the root causes of insurgent and tribal conflict. According to U.S. Africa Command al Shabaab remains adaptive, resilient, and capable of attacking US, Western, and partner interests in Somalia and East Africa.
The 19,000-man multinational African Union force will withdraw by the end of 2021. A withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Somalia accompanied by a reduction of ANISOM will likely increase the opportunity for al Shabaab to increase its influence and make further territorial gains. On January 20th a new president will occupy the White House. He may opt to reverse or adjust priorities in the region.
Task Force Quartz. “U.S. Africa Command stands up Joint Task Force – Quartz”, United States Africa Command, December 19, 2020.
IG Report on CT in Africa. The Defense Department posted the quarterly report for counterterrorism operations in East, North, and West Africa. This 98-page report provides information on the security situation in much of Africa to include Somalia. November 2020.
Recent Analysis and Commentary on Somalia.
“Why the Somali Danab SOF is Vital to the US and to Defeating Al-Shabaab”, by Steve Balestrieri, SOFREP, January 13, 2021.
“The Way Forward for the United States in Somalia”, by Stephen M. Schwartz, Foreign Policy Research Institute, January 12, 2021. Schwartz is a former U.S. Ambassador to Somalia (2016-2017).