The Trump administration will pull virtually all of the roughly 700 US troops in Somalia just five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
The withdrawal, announced by the Pentagon on Friday, allegedly marks President Donald Trump's recent attempt to reduce the US presence overseas in what he described as costly and ineffective military operations in regions like the Middle East.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller announced in November that the US plans to reduce US troops from 4,500 to 2,500 in Afghanistan and from 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq. But the change in strategy in Somalia seems to be different.
According to a Defense Department official, many of the armed forces will not be brought home, but will be transferred to neighboring Kenya, according to a Defense Department official, although it is not yet clear what percentage of the troops stationed in Somalia will be relocated there.
"As a result of this decision, some armed forces outside East Africa could be deployed," the Pentagon said in a statement on Friday. "However, the remaining armed forces will be relocated from Somalia to neighboring countries in order to enable cross-border operations by both US forces and partner forces."
What the US did in Somalia
Most of the US forces stationed in Somalia were engaged in counter-terrorism missions, with a particular focus on combating the presence of al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant Islamist group. And US forces have also worked to train Somali forces to carry out raids and capture al-Shabaab leaders.
According to the Pentagon, the mission against al-Shabaab will not end – instead, the troops once stationed in the country will "put pressure on violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia" from bases in Kenya and elsewhere.
The Pentagon also said the military will "retain the ability to conduct targeted counter-terrorism operations in Somalia and collect early warnings and indicators of threats to the homeland."
How successful the US was in this mission in Somalia is not entirely clear. And the US's methods of conducting its work against al-Shabaab have been harshly criticized by guard dogs who argue that counter-terrorism operations in East Africa have been conducted without an adequate level of accountability.
One of the most important US instruments against al-Shabaab were drone strikes, which have been carried out in Somalia since 2007. The frequency of these strikes has increased significantly during the Trump administration. 47 strikes were carried out in 2018 and 63 strikes in 2019. according to the New York Times. In total, the Trump administration carried out at least 192 drone strikes in Somalia, according to an analysis by New America.
Trump's tenure also relaxed supervisory guidelines for strikes in Somalia, some of which are designed to minimize civilian casualties.
In the first seven months of the Trump administration, Trump monitored more drone strikes than under George W. Bush and Barack Obama combined, and human rights groups have accused US officials of recognizing a fraction of the known civilian victims of these strikes. Amnesty International has accused the government of portraying civilian killings as successful al-Shabaab raids and of refusing to offer compensation when innocent people are accidentally killed.
Al-Shabaab appears to be resilient in the face of US intervention. A report from the Department of Defense Inspector General earlier this year found that Somalia's security forces still appear overwhelmed by the militant group.
"Despite many years of ongoing Somali, US and international counter-terrorism efforts, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not being reduced: al-Shabaab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated the ability and intent to attack land outside the US, including targeting US -Interests, "says the report.
And this ability has been shown lately. A CIA contractor was recently killed in Somalia and al-Shabaab carried out an attack on a US facility in Kenya in January that resulted in the death of a US soldier, two contractors, and the destruction of expensive military equipment – including one – led surveillance vehicle.
In the face of the January attack in particular, U.S. military officials in East Africa reportedly pushed for more flexibility to launch air strikes from Kenya, and Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta reportedly asked Trump for greater help in fighting al-Shabaab earlier this year. The redeployment appears to achieve both ends.
While US training for Somali security forces is expected to end, air strikes against militants in Somalia will continue as the air bases of US drones carrying out strikes in Somalia are currently stationed outside the country.
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