WASHINGTON — The Pentagon said Friday it is pulling most U.S. troops out of Somalia on President Donald Trump’s orders, continuing a post-election push by Trump to shrink U.S. involvement in counterterrorism missions abroad.
Without providing details, the Pentagon said in a short statement that “a majority” of U.S. troops and assets in Somalia will be withdrawn in early 2021.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.
In a statement, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, said that troops are not withdrawing from east Africa, but are being redeployed elsewhere in that region.
“Our presence in Somalia will decrease significantly but U.S. forces will remain in the region and our tasks and commitment to partners remain unchanged,” he said in a statement emailed to Military Times.
“The U.S. remains committed to our work in east Africa and Somalia, to include building and maintaining regional security, continuing to observe and intensify pressure on al-Qaida’s franchise al-Shabab and advancing mutual interests with our east African partners.”
Townsend said that “we have demonstrated an ability to respond rapidly in any region when a need arises — that remains unchanged. This action is not a withdrawal and an end to our efforts but a reposition to continue our efforts in East Africa.”
The forces repositioning from Somalia “are moving to partner countries elsewhere in the region to accomplish their missions,” Air Force Col. Christopher Karns, an AFRICOM spokesman, told Military Times. “Our troops will remain in the region and continue the same military tasks as before.”
Due to operational security concerns, Karns would not discuss the specifics of troop movements or basing.
“The U.S. will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to U.S. interests and the homeland,” he said.
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 U.S. military presence in Somalia was still in debate.
The adjusted U.S. presence, Milley said, would amount to “a relatively small footprint, relatively low cost in terms of number of personnel and in terms of money.” He provided no specifics but stressed that the U.S. remained concerned about the threat posed by al-Shabab, which he called “an extension of al-Qaida,” the extremist group that planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States from Afghanistan.
“They do have some reach and they could if left unattended conduct operations against not only U.S. interests in the region but also against the homeland,” he said. “So they require attention.” Noting that Somalia remains a dangerous place for Americans, he said that a CIA officer was killed there recently.
The acting secretary of defense, Christopher Miller, made a brief visit to Somalia last week and met with U.S. troops.
Depending on what remains of the U.S. presence in Somalia when he takes office Jan. 20, President-elect Joe Biden could reverse Trump’s drawdown or make other adjustments to reflect his counterterrorism priorities. The U.S. military also has a presence in neighboring Djibouti on the Bab al-Mandab Strait.
Karns said the drawdown in Somalia does not mark the end of U.S. counterterrorism efforts there.
“We will continue to execute counterterrorism missions and further limit al-Shabab’s ability to provide a threat outside the region. Expanding our efforts with our valued partners and allies while continuing counterterrorism efforts remains critical,” he said. “While force positioning might look different, our commitment to placing pressure on al-Shabab and supporting our east African partners remains strong. At the combatant command level, we are not breaking contact with the enemy as our troops move.”
Three decades of chaos, from warlords to al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab to the emergence of an Islamic State-linked group, have ripped apart the country that only in the past few years has begun to find its footing. The U.S. Embassy returned to Somalia just last year, 28 years after diplomats and staffers fled.
Somalia faces a tense election season that begins in the next few weeks to decide the presidency and parliament. United Nations experts say al-Shabab, supporting its 5,000 to 10,000 fighters on a rich diet of extorting businesses and civilians, is improving its bomb-making skills. And an ever bigger military force, the African Union’s 19,000-strong AMISOM, has begun its own withdrawal from a country whose forces are widely considered unready to assume full responsibility for security.
The move follow’s Trump’s orders for troop reductions in Afghanistan and Iraq. But U.S. drone strikes are expected to continue in Somalia against al-Shabab and ISIS fighters from neighboring Djibouti and Kenya — where al-Shabab carried out a deadly attack against U.S. forces early this year.
The U.S. Africa Command has seen a “definitive shift” this year in al-Shabab’s focus to attack U.S. interests in the region, a new report by the Department of Defense inspector general said Wednesday — and the command says al-Shabab is Africa’s most “dangerous” and “imminent” threat.
Rep. Jim Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat, criticized 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 U.S. 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 neighboring Ethiopia, abandoning our partners could not come at a worse time.”
Langevin said China will use the opportunity to build its influence in the Horn of Africa.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.