Navy, Marines bolster maritime presence off the coast of Somalia amid US troop relocation

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The U.S. is bolstering its maritime presence just off the Somali coast as U.S. Africa Command starts to reposition forces from Somalia to other areas of the region.

AFRICOM announced Tuesday that the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group and embarked 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit — consisting of nearly 5,000 sailors and Marines — are now operating off the coast of Somalia to conduct maritime security operations with the expeditionary sea base Hershel “Woody” Williams. The aircraft carrier Nimitz is also in the region.

“The arrival of the ARG/MEU and its significant combat capability demonstrates our resolve to support our partners and protect our forces through this transition,” U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, Joint Task Force-Quartz commander, said in a news release. ’’This is a great example of how the United States can rapidly aggregate combat power to respond to emerging issues. We will look to leverage this inherent flexibility of the U.S. military in support of our future engagements in East Africa.”

AFRICOM recently stood up Joint Task Force-Quartz to supervise Operation Octave Quartz, which is in charge of repositioning of hundreds of U.S. troops in Somalia.

The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group consists of amphibious assault ship Makin Island and amphibious transport dock ships San Diego and Somerset. The Hershel “Woody” Williams, which AFRICOM announced on Dec. 19 had moved into the region as part of Joint Task Force-Quartz, has been deployed since July in support of AFRICOM’s mission.

Additionally, the Nimitz and its carrier strike group are also off the coast of Somalia, per USNI News’ fleet tracker from Dec. 21. USNI News was the first to report that the Nimitz along with the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group had moved to waters off the coast of Somalia.

Earlier in December the Pentagon disclosed it was planning to remove a “majority” of the 700 U.S. troops in Somalia from the country and relocate them by early 2021.

AFRICOM commander Army Gen. Stephen Townsend said Dec. 19 that the troops would be repositioned to other areas in east Africa, noting that the command was still committed to its mission in east Africa.

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“To be clear, the U.S. is not withdrawing or disengaging from east Africa,” Townsend said in a statement. “We remain committed to helping our African partners build a more secure future. We also remain capable of striking al-Shabab at the time and place of our choosing — they should not test us.”

A small troop presence would remain in Somalia, AFRICOM spokesman Air Force Col. Chris Karns told Army Times, but he refrained from elaborating further due to force protection concerns. He also declined to comment on whether U.S. troops may return to Somalia under President-elect Joe Biden’s new administration.

“I don’t want to get into hypotheticals about future force positioning,” Karns said. “How we go about conducting the mission will adjust, but our support continues, as does our commitment to dismantling Al-Shabaab’s ability to plot and plan attacks. U.S. Africa Command’s work in East Africa provides a valuable threat detection capability and basic security insurance for America.”

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U.S. troops in Somalia have been responsible for conducting airstrikes and training Somalia’s Danab Advance Infantry Brigade to quash violent extremist groups like al-Qaida offshoot al-Shabab. Al-Shabab is based in Somalia and AFRICOM assesses there are between 5,000 to 7,000 al-Shabab militants there.

AFRICOM has conducted a total of 50 airstrikes in Somalia in 2020 — a drop from the 63 airstrikes conducted in 2019. The command carried out 47 airstrikes in 2018 and 35 in 2017.

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