American Hybrid Warfare: Somalia as a Case Study in the Real American Way of War in 2016

By Robert Chesney
Monday, October 17, 2016, 7:06 AM

The front page of the New York Times carried a story this Sunday that would have commanded the news cycle many years ago. It describes in previously-unappreciated detail the complex nature and large scale of the U.S. military commitment to the ongoing armed conflict against al Shabab in Somalia, underscoring the extent to which the real Obama military legacy (at least vis-a-vis the blended problem of failed states and violent jihadist organizations committed to terrorism) is not the simple caricature of "drone wars" but, instead, a sophisticated hybrid model blending an array of light-footprint, light-visibility, and light-commitment elements. Alas, despite the prominent placement it is far from clear that many people are paying attention (and it is perfectly clear we will not be hearing anything from the presidential candidates about this model, just as we won't be hearing a peep from them about, say, their plans for Afghanistan). The least I can do, it seems to me, as highlight the elements in the story that I find particularly significant.

First, the piece documents a sophisticated approach that layers together a panoply of low-visibility (to the public both here and there) tools. Of course that includes the use of drones, including armed drones, but it also includes the use of SOF for a variety of purposes (training of host state and African Union proxy forces, but there also are vague references to "group operations" that presumably SOF SMU's carry out, as well as temporary involvement in interrogation), and--most intriguingly--private military contractors who not only are training host state forces but also embedding with them for operations. Combined with what must be a substantial outlay of funding for Somali and African Union forces engaging in this work, and one has a picture of a very sizable commitment--but also one that leaves a very light footprint.

Second, detention and interrogation make a remarkable appearance, one that is entirely predictable given the aversion to US control of such matters over the past 8 years. We are told US personnel directly engage in interrogations at temporary screening facilities, before detainees are left to their fate with the host state. It seems as if we have managed to preserve at least some degree of functionality along the lines of the rapid cycle of raid-exploit-raid that SOF developed in Iraq years ago, but modified here to account for the now long-standing US aversion to direct responsibility for detention.

Third, the story notes something we've posted on at Lawfare before: the uncertainty surrounding the ROE for US kinetic operations in Somalia, including especially the extent to which self-defense justifications have been extended as an umbrella for Somali and African Union forces. Relatedly, the story also makes the critical point that the mere act of inserting US forces into situations of potential hostilities does of course increase the occasions for reliance on self-defense rationales.

No doubt we will be hearing more as time goes by. Nice work by the Times in the meantime.