WASHINGTON (AP) — 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details, the Pentagon said in a short statement that “a majority” of U.S. troops and assets in Somalia will be withdrawn in early 2021.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 Qaeda’s franchise al-Shabaab 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.
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“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.
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-Shabaab’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-Shabaab 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 IS 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.