Update on US Drone Base in Ethiopia

Last month, reports came out that the United States was building a new drone base in Ethiopia as part of a broader effort to strike targets in Somalia and Yemen. The base is already operational, and the BBC, the Washington Post, and other outlets are covering the story. As the BBC story points out, “the remotely-piloted drones [are] being used only for surveillance, and not for air strikes,” though the vehicles can be equipped with missiles and bombs if commanders choose.

Here’s an excerpt from the Post’s piece:

The Air Force has invested millions of dollars to upgrade an airfield in Arba Minch, Ethi­o­pia, where it has built a small annex to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs. The Reapers began flying missions earlier this year over neighboring Somalia, where the United States and its allies in the region have been targeting al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda.

[…]

The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, [Air Force spokesman Master Sgt. James] Fisher said. He said the drone flights “will continue as long as the government of Ethi­o­pia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programs.”

Last month, the Ethio­pian Foreign Ministry denied the presence of U.S. drones in the country. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Ethio­pian embassy in Washington repeated that assertion.

The disconnect in rhetoric between the US military and the Ethiopian government points to the major tensions in this relationship. As I noted in my last piece, US officials said that it took years of effort to persuade Ethiopia to host the base. The lack of enthusiasm from Ethiopia’s side has persisted to the present. Ethiopia’s willingness to permit drone operations to continue may be contingent on what reactions occur in Somalia and inside Ethiopia, which is host to many ethnic Somalis and refugees from Somalia.

Somalia: US Considers Drone Strikes

The stalemate in Somalia seems more intractable than ever. Government-backed protesters march against the Islamist al Shabab militia in the streets of the capital, but the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) also faces protests from local residents. Violence in Somalia continues, but the long-awaited “Battle for Mogadishu,” pitting the TFG against al Shabab, has yet to materialize. Commenter Mogadishuman offers one view of the situation:

the battle is long overdue – the feeble TFG have been promising retaliation and defeating the Islamists but so far haven’t set foot outside their pigeon hole. Perhaps they are waiting for the American Blacks Hawks to arrive in Mogadishu before we can witness another Black hawk Down.

This gets at one of the most burning questions regarding Somalia – will the US intervene? Until recently that possibility seemed unlikely, even remote. But as the TFG proves incapable of acting on its own, moves toward a US intervention appear to be picking up steam.

In the midst of chronic logistical problems surrounding the government’s planned offensive against al Shabab, the TFG has repeatedly called for international support. So who is willing to help the TFG? Not Kenya, Somalia’s neighbor. Kenya has denied a Somali request for some 2,500 Kenyan-trained Somali troops to cross the border and join the fight. And despite Ethiopia’s occasional habit of crossing the border to fight Somali Islamists, it does not appear that Ethiopia will intervene directly in Mogadishu.

So does the TFG’s lack of regional support mean the US will step in and give direct military support to the TFG, above and beyond the aid Washington already provides?

Maybe, and the TFG would certainly welcome it. Somali President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed has expressed a desire for US air support. Some reports say US surveillance planes are already flying over Somalia, though these reports prompted the US State Department to deny that the US has an active military role in Somalia. Now, though, the US is considering intervening – not through helicopters and ground troops, but with drones:

The Pentagon is considering dispatching surveillance drones and other limited military support for a Somali government offensive against al-Qaida-linked insurgents, U.S. officials said, part of a cautious move to increase U.S. assistance to the anarchic African nation.

U.S. diplomats are pressing Somali leaders to detail the goals of the looming assault, in order to figure out the most appropriate ways the U.S. can help.

Determined to avoid a visible American footprint on the ground or fingerprints on Somalia’s shaky government, U.S. officials are struggling to find the right balance between seizing the opportunity to take out al-Qaida insurgents there and avoiding the appearance of a U.S. occupation.

[…]

One proposal would move surveillance drones to the Horn of Africa from an island in the Seychelles, where several unarmed Reaper systems were sent last fall for counter-piracy operations in the western Indian Ocean. The move would represent a more enduring U.S. commitment, which also would be largely invisible to the population.

[…]While administration officials said that sending U.S. troops into the embattled country is not seen as a viable option, they say they are not ruling out the use of small numbers of U.S. commandos when necessary for specific operations — much as they have done in the past.

The US has conducted targeted killings in Somalia in recent months, so in a way using drones would represent nothing new. But in the context of expanding drone operations elsewhere in the region, and in the context of war between the TFG and al Shabab, US drone strikes will have a significant political as well as military impact. The Pentagon may hope to avoid leaving a “footprint” or “fingerprints,” as AP writes, but especially given today’s media climate (and al Shabab follows the news) drone strikes will be read by many Somalis (and perhaps some in the Middle East as well) as active and unwelcome US intervention. If the TFG offensive fails to defeat al Shabab or significantly expand government control, and merely produces destruction and civilian casualties, the US could find its popularity diminished in Somalia and its goals no closer to realization. Any deaths of American soldiers will, moreover, produce real outcry here in the US. So I hope the question officials at the Pentagon are asking themselves is not, “How should we intervene?” but “Is intervention worth it, and can it work?” I suspect the answer to the latter question is no.