WASHINGTON — The House on Thursday voted 101-321 against withdrawing U.S. troops in Somalia even as Africa Command asks Congress for more funds to establish a “persistent presence” in the war-torn country.
Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., used expedited measures laid out in the War Powers Act to force a floor vote on his resolution, which would have directed President Joe Biden to remove all U.S. troops from Somalia – except for those assigned to protect the embassy – within a year.
“The future of Somalia must be determined by Somalia,” Gaetz said on the House floor ahead of the vote. “I would argue that the African Union is far better positioned to build a stronger sense of national identity and national unity among clans that have been warring in Somalia for generations than U.S. troops.”
Biden has reintroduced troops into Somalia to help local forces fight al-Shabaab – an al-Qaeda affiliate – after Trump withdrew from the country following his 2020 election defeat and placed them in neighboring countries such as Kenya and Djbouti.
Gaetz said the U.S. currently has approximately 900 troops stationed in Somalia. The White House has said that it deployed less than 500 to the country, but it did not disclose Somalia troop levels in the unclassified portion of the war powers report it submitted to Congress in March.
Defense News in March obtained an unfunded priorities request from AFRICOM Commander Gen. Michael Langley, who asked Congress for $152 million to carry out a three-month assessment on U.S. troop levels in Somalia. That amount includes $42 million for airfield improvements, $43 million for life support area improvements and $11 million for communications improvements.
“Funding is required to establish a Somalian persistent presence to further ensure strategic access, confine violent extremist organizations, secure sea lines of communication and limit competitor military expansion,” Langley wrote. “More precisely, a lodgment in Somalia will serve to degrade the growing threat from Al Shabaab, assure freedom of navigation through the Bab Al Mandab sea-lane chokepoint and monitor the expanding Chinese presence in Djibouti.”
Rep. John James, R-Mich., also pointed to China’s Djbouti base and expanding military presence in the Horn of Africa when arguing against the Gaetz amendment, arguing that Beijing “will rush to fill the void” in the region.
Langley noted the funding request for the review was not included in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2024 base budget request due to the “emergent nature” of the Somalia mission since Biden’s 2021 decision to reintroduce troops there. He also wrote that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin “further endorsed this adjustment to increase the effectiveness, efficiency and safety of U.S. Special Forces.”
The U.S. conducted 15 airstrikes on al-Shabaab forces in Somalia in 2022, a 30% increase over the previous year, killing 107. U.S. Special Forces also killed Islamic State leader Bilal Al Sudani and 10 of his associates in a January raid this year.
U.S. troops are stationed in Somalia under a 2001 military authorization, which Congress passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to target al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Four presidents have since used the 2001 military authorization to justify at least 41 military operations in at least 19 countries across the globe.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., joined in the opposition to the Gaetz resolution, arguing that “our forces on the ground in Somalia are there to provide security training and intelligence support” and said the legislation did not address the issue of over-the-horizon strikes on Al Shabaab after the withdrawal.
Meeks instead argued in favor of his bill to repeal and replace the 2001 military authorization with a narrower authority. The Meeks bill would take away the legal basis for stationing U.S. soldiers in Somalia by limiting the mission to al-Qaida and the Islamic State in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. His bill does not currently have any Republican cosponsors.
It’s unclear whether the Gaetz resolution would force Biden’s hand on Somalia even if Congress had passed it. The lawmaker introduced the legislation as concurrent resolution instead of a joint resolution, meaning the president would not have the opportunity to veto it. A Congressional Research Service report notes that a 1983 Supreme Court decision ruled that concurrent resolutions aren’t binding, but it caveats that this ruling may not apply to war powers resolutions.
“While we should not mistake this poorly crafted resolution for an honest assessment of U.S. policy on Somalia, it is important that we support the question before us,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn, a Somali-American refugee, said before voting in favor of the bill. But she added that there should be a broader debate over “the expansive use” of the 2001 military authorization as well as “a clear-eyed analysis of U.S. counterterrorism policies, including airstrikes and drones and the consistent problem of civilian casualties.”
Despite the tepid support from even some of the bill’s backers, Gaetz remains undeterred. He previously forced a war powers vote in March to withdraw 900 U.S. troops from Syria, which the House voted down 103-321. He also hinted on Thursday that he would next force a war powers vote on withdrawing U.S. soldiers from Niger.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.