Boots on the Ground in Somalia: Acting "By, With, and Through" a Local Partner to Minimize Friction

By Robert Chesney
Wednesday, March 9, 2016, 2:40 PM

These days, when the United States plays the lead role in using lethal force or detaining and interrogating prisoners, the force typically involves only airpower and detention-and-interrogation typically are just transient. This has the effect of tamping down the political, legal, and diplomatic headaches that follow from using boots-on-the-ground to conduct raids and from holding detainees for the long term. But these are not the only means by which to tamp down those frictions.

Another significant strategy is to act "by, with, and through" an allied force (typically, using U.S. SOF to leverage up the operational effectiveness of the military or security services of a local government partner). This approach, when executed well, offers many advantages. But it is important to bear in mind that it it only a few shades different from more direct forms of U.S. involvement, particularly where the SOF support extends to being on-scene during operations ostensibly led by the local government forces.

We have a reminder of this today, with news out of Somalia emerging hot on the heels of this weekend's airstrikes on a large formation of al Shabaab fighters. Last night, it seems, U.S. military personnel played a role in a ground assault that resulted in a significant firefight. Just what that role was is unclear. A headline from an AP piece carried by the Washington Post actually asserts that "U.S. Special Forces Kill 10 Islamic Extremists in Somalia," and opens by stating that U.S. personnel landed in helicopters some three miles from the target and then made their way to the point of contact. Later in the same piece, however, a Pentagon spokesman described the U.S. role in terms of airlift and indirect on-scene support to Somali government forces who did the actual fighting:

The U.S. forces were serving in an advisory role and provided the helicopter transportation for the mission, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. The U.S. forces accompanied the Somali troops on the mission, but did not “go all the way to the objective,” he said.

Meanwhile, NBC reports that unnamed defense officials described the U.S. personnel as having a mere "advise and assist" role in the operation, though they did not rule out the possibility of actual direct participation in the fighting. At any rate, the point in either case is much the same: the difference between a policy of U.S.-led ground operations and U.S.-supported ground operations is not always so great as it might seem on paper, and what difference there is can collapse quickly depending on unpredictable circumstances in the field.

Notably, the NBC report also suggests that two al Shabaab figures might have been captured during the operation. If so, they most likely are not now being held in direct U.S. custody, but rather almost certainly are held by Somali authorities. It would not follow, of course, that U.S. personnel would have no role in the resulting interrogation (or in receiving the fruits of interrogation even if conducted exclusively by the Somalis). This, too, draws attention to the way that the "by, with, and through" model provides some of the benefits of direct U.S. responsibility while helping to minimize the associated costs.