NAIROBI, Kenya — The U.S. military says its troop withdrawal from Somalia is complete, in one of the last actions of President Donald Trump’s presidency.
Some experts have warned that the withdrawal of an estimated 700 U.S. military personnel comes at the worst possible time for Somalia, as the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group improves its bomb-making skills and continues to attack military and civilian targets even in the capital, Mogadishu. The withdrawal comes less than a month before Somalia is set to hold a national election.
The U.S. personnel trained and supported Somali forces, including its elite special forces, in counter-terror operations. They are being moved to other African countries such as neighboring Kenya and Djibouti, home of the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa, but U.S. Africa Command spokesman Col. Chris Karns would not say how many are going where.
Asked whether the administration of President-elect Joe Biden will reverse the withdrawal, Karns replied in an email: “It would be inappropriate for us to speculate or engage in hypotheticals.”
Karns said the operation enters its “next phase of periodic engagement with Somali security forces.” He would not go into details.
The withdrawal was announced late last year, with a Jan. 15 deadline. The U.S. military, which has carried out a growing number of airstrikes against al-Shabab and a small band of fighters linked to the Islamic State group during Trump’s administration, says it will continue to pressure al-Shabab. The extremist group has an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 fighters.
Those Somali forces, even U.S. assessments have said, are not ready to take over responsibility for the country’s security, especially as a 19,000-strong multinational African Union force is also set to withdraw by the end of this year.
The U.S. Africa Command commander, Gen. Stephen Townsend, noted “no serious injuries or significant loss of equipment, despite significant efforts to target us by al-Shabab” during the “intense” operation to remove the U.S. personnel.
Townsend on Saturday visited Manda Bay in Kenya, where the U.S. Africa Command said “substantial enhancements have been made to physical security” after a deadly al-Shabab attack a year ago destroyed U.S. aircraft used against it in Somalia.