Why Biden Is Redeploying U.S. Troops to Somalia

Somalia’s former leader Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was elected president on Sunday after receiving 214 votes from legislators in a poll open only to parliamentarians. But many hope the vote will end a political crisis that has lasted more than a year, when then-President Mohamed Abudallahi’s term ended in February 2021 without an election.

Mohamud, who is 66 years old, was an ex-university professor and former aid worker. He was previously in power from 2012 through 2017. He pledged to move the embattled country forward following more than a year of gridlock that saw Abudallahi—also known as Farmaajo—hold onto power.

“We have to move ahead, we do not need grudges. No avenging,” Mohamud said in his acceptance speech, as cheering and celebratory gunfire from his supporters rang out in the capital, Mogadishu.

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A day later, New York was open. TimesAccording to reports, President Joe Biden planned to reverse Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Somalia. It is planned to return nearly 500 U.S. troop to Somalia in support of the battle against al-Qaeda-allied rebel group al-Shabab. The latter controls large swathes south and central Somalia.

Mohamud begins his presidential term amid Somalia’s worst drought in four decades, soaring inflation, and escalating militant violence. Here’s what the election results mean for the country:

Somalia’s violent election season

Sunday’s presidential elections in Somalia were held against the odds. Al-Shabab threats were prevented by lawmakers casting their ballots in an aircraft hangar that was fortified and manned by African Union peacekeepers.

Elections in the east African nation—which have for decades been marred by violence—exclude the majority of the country’s 15 million people. Parliamentarians select the presidential candidates. They are also chosen by powerful clan elders. The system—which makes it particularly difficult for young people and women to climb the political ranks—is vulnerable to manipulation by rival groups and lacks democratic accountability.

Sunday’s election was delayed by 15 months as Farmaajo launched in April 2021 a widely-condemned bid to extend his five-year term by another two years, prompting political infighting and violent clashes that brought the country to a political standstill. Farmaajo consolidated his power and centralized the government during his term.

Farmaajo ran again in this election as Mohamud’s main rival, winning 110 votes—just over half of what Mohamud received. According to some reports, three legislators soiled their ballots. Fawzia Yusuf, a former foreign minister, was the only female candidate. She was eliminated at the first round.

On Sunday there was an explosion outside of the voting station, but no reports from police indicated that any casualties had been reported. Somalia’s elections are so complicated that this election was only the third to be held there. The previous ones were in Djibouti, Kenya, and Djibouti.

A former president’s rise to power

Newly elected Mohamud is the first Somali president to win a second term—albeit, five years after his first. He pledged to not repeat the errors of his first term which was marred in corruption claims and fighting. Mohamud belongs to the Hawiye clan, one of Somalia’s most powerful. He is also the head of the Socially Conservative Union for Peace and Development party. It controls both legislative chambers.

Key to Mohamud’s success as president will be his ability to unite rival political forces, according to Omar Mahmood, senior Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. The new leader’s reconciliatory approach to politics—as seen by his rhetoric after being sworn in Monday—marks a break from Farmaajo’s approach. “He’s said the right things, and he has a disposition which is more inclined to consultation, but let’s see how it plays out in practice,” Mahmood says.

Mohamud is facing a difficult task. Somalia’s ongoing drought has displaced 760,000 people and left around 40% of the country hungry. The U.N. estimates that nearly 900,000. people are facing food insecurity in the areas managed by al Shabab, which is unreachable for aid agencies.

Biden’s decision to redeploy American troops into Somalia

According to reports, Biden had plans to redeploy almost 500 U.S. forces in Somalia. In a statement, Adrienne Watson, the National Security Council spokeswoman, said the decision to reverse Washington’s “precipitous” withdrawal under former President Donald Trump would enable “a more effective fight against al-Shabab.”

According to Times, Biden’s administration will target a select group of al-Shabab senior leaders, who may be responsible for orchestrating terrorist attacks beyond Somalia. Three Department of Defense officers were killed in an attack by the militant group on an American airbase in Kenya, January 2020.

While Trump moved 700 troops out of the country as part of his pledge of “ending another Forever War,” says analyst Mahmood—in reference to the longstanding U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere—they were deployed in neighboring Kenya and Djibouti but were continuously rotated back into Somalia. Biden’s decision, therefore, is “really just repositioning them again,” Mahmood says.

The decision could still be enough to exert some pressure on the militant group, Mahmood says, which al-Shabab hasn’t felt since the U.S. withdrawal. Mahmood notes that al-Shabab prospered even in years of significant U.S. military involvement and an air strikes program. Somali civilians also were in the crossfire.

Next, what could happen?

The effects of drought and soaring food prices have been compounded by the war in Ukraine—Somalia depends on both Ukraine and Russia for around 90% of its wheat imports, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The success of President Mohamud’s reconciliatory vision is vital for the material wellbeing of his people, as the country seeks to salvage its agriculture industry, and deliver vital food and medical supplies to those affected by the drought.

In terms of outside support for Somalia, Mahmood says the international community should focus on the nation’s political instability, which is exactly what al-Shabab exploits. “Al-Shabab is a symptom of political dysfunction in Somalia,” he says. “As long as the elites remain divided, as long as there’s grievances on the ground, it will remain a very pertinent actor.”

Al-Shabab has used political instabilities and stalemate for years to consolidate its control over the country. Al-Shabab is a tax collector, has its own courts and uses suidice bombers. In 2020, the president of neighboring Djibouti, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, expressed concern that the militant group would use its influence to buy seats in Somalia’s parliament. “I fear we will end up with a parliament indirectly controlled by al-Shabab,” he said.

Even without direct parliamentary influence today, al-Shabab still remains a governing actor in large parts of the country, “providing services that are more competitive than the federal government,” Mahmood says.

“Only calling them a terrorist actor and confining them to military action is not really appropriate,” he says. “There needs to be some sort of political track, some sort of outreach track from the U.S. as well.”

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