The Pentagon said Friday it was withdrawing most US troops from Somalia on orders from President Donald Trump and continuing a post-election push by Mr Trump to reduce US involvement in counter-terrorism missions abroad.
Without giving details, the Pentagon said in a brief statement that “a majority” of US troops and assets in Somalia will be withdrawn in early 2021. There are currently around 700 troops in the Horn of Africa who are training local armed forces in a country and advising on an extensive fight against the extremist group al-Shabab, a subsidiary of al-Qaeda.
Trump recently orderedand he should withdraw some or all of the troops from Somalia. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Wednesday that the future structure of the US military presence in Somalia was still being discussed.
The adjusted presence in the US, Milley said, would mean “a relatively small footprint, relatively low cost in terms of number of employees and in terms of money.” He did not provide details, but stressed that the US remained concerned about the threat posed by al-Shabab, which he described as an “extension of al-Qaeda,” the extremist group behind the 9/11 attacks on the United States 2001 from planned.
“They have a certain reach and could conduct unsupervised operations that are directed not only against US interests in the region but also against the home country,” he said. “So they need attention.” Finding out that Somalia remains a dangerous place for Americans, he said that a CIA officer was recently killed there.
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller was briefly in Somalia last week and met with US forces.
Depending on what remains of the US presence in Somalia when he takes office on Jan. 20, President-elect Joe Biden could reverse Trump’s drawdown or make other adjustments to reflect his counter-terrorism priorities. The US military is also present in neighboring Djibouti on Bab al-Mandab Street.
Representative Jim Langevin, a Democrat from Rhode Island, criticized Trump’s withdrawal from Somalia as a “surrender to al-Qaeda and a gift from China”. Langevin chairs the Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.
“If US forces leave Somalia in response to today’s order, it will be more difficult for diplomats and aid workers to help people resolve conflicts without violence or loss of life,” Langevin said. “With the upcoming elections in Somalia and the conflicts in neighboring Ethiopia, leaving our partners couldn’t get any worse.”
Langevin said China will take the opportunity to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa.
The Pentagon said the decline in Somalia did not end the US counter-terrorism efforts there.
“As a result of this decision, some armed forces outside East Africa could be deployed,” it said. “However, the remaining armed forces are being relocated from Somalia to neighboring countries so that cross-border operations by both US forces and partner forces can maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia.”
“The US will continue to be able to conduct targeted counter-terrorism operations in Somalia and collect early warnings and indicators of threats to the homeland,” she added.
The nature of the al-Shabab threat and the appropriate US response have been the subject of mounting debate in the Pentagon, which is looking for ways to shift its focus to China as a larger long-term challenge.
A Department of Defense surveillance report last week said the US Command for Africa saw a “definitive shift” in al-Shabab’s focus on attacks on US interests in the region this year. According to the Africa Command, al-Shabab is the “most dangerous” and “imminent” threat to Africa.