President Donald Trump has ordered almost all US troops to withdraw from Somalia, US officials said on Friday, part of a global withdrawal of the Republican president before leaving office next month which will also see him withdraw forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The United States has about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab uprising. The mission has received little attention in the United States, but has been considered a cornerstone of the Pentagon’s global efforts to combat al Qaeda.
In a statement, the Pentagon sought to cover up the consequences of a withdrawal that experts have said could undermine security in Somalia.
“While a change in force is this measure, it is not a change in US policy,” the Pentagon said.
“The United States will maintain the ability to conduct targeted terrorist operations in Somalia and gather early warnings and indicators regarding threats to its home country.”
The United States already pulled out of Somalia’s cities of Bossaso and Galkayo earlier this year. As of last month, US troops were still in the southern port city of Kismayo, Baledogel’s air base in the Lower Shabelle region and in the capital Mogadishu.
A US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that almost all US forces would leave Somalia, although some would remain in Mogadishu.
The Pentagon statement, which was not signed, said an unspecified number of forces in Somalia would be relocated to neighboring countries, allowing them to carry out cross-border operations. Others would be redistributed outside East Africa.
A congressional assistant, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the withdrawal came at a difficult time for Somalia, ahead of both parliamentary and presidential elections, and would present an early dilemma for President-elect Joe Biden.
Somalia has been plagued by civil war since the early 1990s, but over the past decade, a peacekeeping force with the African Union and US troops has regained control of Mogadishu and large parts of the country from al Shabaab.
‘Continuous security partnership’
Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed appeared to have publicly lobbied for the downsizing, writing on Twitter in October that US support “has enabled us to effectively fight Al-Shabab and secure the Horn of Africa.”
US military support for Somalia has enabled us to effectively fight Al-Shabab and secure the Horn of Africa. A victory through this journey and for Somali-American partnership can only be achieved through continuous security partnership and capacity building.
– Mohamed Farmaajo (@M_Farmaajo) October 15, 2020
“A victory through this journey and for Somali-American partnership can only be achieved through continuous security partnership and capacity building support,” he wrote.
Another US official said the US presence in Somalia was a point of contention between Trump and his former secretary of defense, Mark Esper, which Trump fired last month. According to the official, Trump pressed for a downsizing, citing a desire from Kenya “to police its own neighborhood”, but Esper resisted.
Kenya has supported the Somali government in a number of areas and is contributing troops to the African Union – led force.
Al Shabaab, which has been fighting for more than a decade to establish rule based on its strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law, often carries out weapons attacks and bombings on both military and civilian targets and has also attacked regional targets, particularly in Kenya.
An attack on a US military base in Kenya killed three Americans earlier this year.
Many of the US forces in Somalia train and support Danab, the Somali special forces that are at the heart of a mission to assassinate al Shabaab leaders. Danab, which has about 850 troops but had planned to grow to about 3,000, has been Somalia’s most effective combat force.
It is the third major withdrawal since Trump installed Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, a former Green Beret and terrorism official, to replace Esper at the Pentagon after Trump’s election defeat.
The U.S. defense attorney said the withdrawal was ordered to be completed on January 15 – the same deadlines for withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq.