President Donald Trump has ordered the removal of most US military and security personnel from Somalia, where they have been conducting operations against the Al-Shabaab militant group, the Pentagon said Friday.
After ordering major troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan recently, Trump’s new move reflects his drive to disengage US forces from what he calls endless wars abroad, making good on a campaign pledge in the final weeks of his presidency.
Trump “has ordered the Department of Defense and the United States Africa Command to reposition the majority of personnel and assets out of Somalia by early 2021,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
The Defense Department stressed the United States was “not withdrawing or disengaging from Africa,” amid concerns of a pullback from various areas in the continent.
“We will continue to degrade violent extremist organizations that could threaten our homeland while ensuring we maintain our strategic advantage in great power competition,” it said.
The US Africa Command has maintained some 700 troops, personnel from other US security operations, and private security contractors in Somalia, both conducting attacks on Al-Shabaab and training Somali forces.
US troops have conducted operations against extremist groups in Somalia since the early 2000s, killing hundreds in mostly conventional aircraft and drone strikes that have caused significant civilian deaths.
US personnel meanwhile have sustained some casualties, including the death of a CIA officer in late November.
Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller visited Somalia a week ago, where he “reaffirmed US resolve in seeing the degradation of violent extremist organizations that threaten US interests, partners, and allies in the region,” the Pentagon said.
On Wednesday Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley confirmed that the Defense Department was reviewing the size of its posture in the country.
“We recognize that Al Shabaab in the Lower River Jubba Valley is a threat. We know that it’s an organized, capable terrorist organization. It’s an extension of Al-Qaeda, just like ISIS was,” he said.
He called the US presence relatively small, “relatively low cost in terms of numbers of personnel and in terms of money.”
“But it’s also high risk,” he said. Yet, if US forces do not keep up pressure on Al-Shabaab, he said, they could threaten to attack US interests outside the Horn of Africa region.
“Most people probably don’t know what that small force has been doing, but they’ve helped prevent Shabaab — a prolific branch of Al-Qaeda — from forming an Islamic Emirate & disrupted terrorist operations,” said Thomas Joscelyn, an expert on Islamic extremist groups at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think-tank.
Shabaab’s main goal, he said on Twitter, “is to create an Islamic emirate in Somalia and export jihad throughout the region.”
“The group has also experimented with sophisticated explosives to attack airplanes & international plotting can’t be ruled out.”
– Withdrawals in Afghanistan, Iraq -The move came as Trump has sought to wind down US military engagements abroad to honor a pledge he made in the 2016 election.
He ordered US troop levels to be slashed by mid-January in Afghanistan and Iraq, to 2,500 troops in both cases.
The Pentagon said Friday that some of the personnel being pulled out of Somalia will be reassigned to neighboring countries, particularly Kenya and Djibouti, to allow cross-border operations against extremist groups in conjunction with partner forces.
“The US will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia, and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland,” it said.