The Pentagon has said it is pulling most US troops out of Somalia on President Donald Trump’s orders, continuing a post-election push by Trump to shrink US involvement in counterterrorism missions abroad.
Without providing details, the Pentagon on Friday said in a short statement that “a majority” of US troops and assets in Somalia will be withdrawn in early 2021. There are currently about 700 troops in that Horn of Africa nation, training and advising local forces in an extended fight against the extremist group al-Shabab, an affiliate of al-Qaida.
Trump recently ordered troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and he was expected to withdraw some or all troops from Somalia. Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had said on Wednesday that the future structure of the US military presence in Somalia was still in debate.
“They do have some reach and they could if left unattended conduct operations against not only US interests in the region but also against the homeland,” he said, adding: “So they require attention.”
Depending on what remains of the US presence in Somalia when he takes office January 20, President-elect Joe Biden could reverse Trump’s drawdown or make other adjustments to reflect his counterterrorism priorities. The US military also has a presence in neighbouring Djibouti on the Bab al-Mandab Strait.
Army Gen Stephen Townsend, head of the US Africa Command, said in a written statement that the US contingent in Somalia would “decrease significantly” but he offered no specifics.
“US forces will remain in the region and our tasks and commitment to partners remain unchanged,” he said. “This action is not a withdrawal and an end to our efforts but a reposition to continue our efforts in East Africa,” he added.
Rep Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, criticised the Trump pullback in Somalia as a “surrender to al-Qaida and a gift of China”. Langevin is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee.
“When US forces leave Somalia in response to today’s order, it becomes harder for diplomats and aid workers to help people resolve conflicts without violence and loss of life,” Langevin said. “With upcoming elections in Somalia and conflict raging in neighbouring Ethiopia, abandoning our partners could not come at a worse time,” he added.
“As a result of this decision, some forces may be reassigned outside of East Africa,” it said, adding: “However, the remaining forces will be repositioned from Somalia into neighbouring countries in order to allow cross-border operations by both U.S. and partner forces to maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia.”
The nature of the threat posed by al-Shabab and the appropriate US response has been a matter of increasing debate in the Pentagon, which has been looking for opportunities to shift its focus toward China as a greater long-term challenge.