Biden Orders US Troops Back to Somalia, Reverses Trump Withdrawal
“This is a step that rationalizes what was essentially an irrational arrangement that we inherited,” a senior administration official said.
President Joe Biden has approved the return of several hundred U.S. troops to Somalia, reversing a late-term Trump administration order that withdrew America’s counterterrorism forces stationed there almost entirely.
The Pentagon will re-establish a “small persistent” presence of fewer than 500 American troops in Somalia, a senior administration official said Monday.
Full-time special operators will help train local forces to conduct counterterrorism strikes against al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, reversing Trump’s order to rely on shorter-term rotations of troops to fight the terrorist group.
“This is a step that rationalizes what was essentially an irrational arrangement that we inherited,” the senior administration official said. “We have lowered the risk, in the view of our experts, to our personnel and increased their efficacy.”
Initially, Trump expanded the American military’s mission in east Africa, giving the Pentagon more authority in 2017 to target al-Shabab fighters. But in December 2020, Trump ordered “the majority” of the 750 American troops stationed in Somalia to move to neighboring countries, including Kenya and Djibouti. The decision, made just weeks before Trump left office, was part of Trump’s effort to end so-called “forever wars.” The president announced the change while some of his loyalists, including Kash Patel, were running the Pentagon following the firing of former Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Staying nearby meant troops retained the ability to enter Somalia for operations. But moving in and out of the country created more risk and less efficiency for the special operators, the senior administration official said. American troops faced greater danger each time they moved in or out of the country and wasted valuable time at the beginning and end of each rotation packing and unpacking equipment. The National Security Council asked agencies for recommendations to mitigate these factors, and Biden approved a Pentagon suggestion to end rotations and go back to a persistent troop presence, the official said.
The United States kept up its campaign against al-Shabab from outside Somalia, including an air strike in February. But Gen. Stephen Townsend, the head of U.S. Africa Command, told senators in March that rotating American forces into Somalia “has caused new challenges and risks for our troops. My assessment is that it is not effective, it’s not efficient, and it puts our troops at greater risk.”
The additional U.S. troops will come from nearby countries, so the change will not impact the Pentagon’s overall footprint in eastern Africa, the official said.
The official would not answer questions about when the military presence would change, where they would be based in Somalia, or which special operators would fill the role.
“The key thing about this deployment…is to help build up Somali partner capacity, so that means helping with training, that means helping with turning intelligence into operations, that means assisting with how to defend oneself when undertaking especially the more difficult operations,” the official said. “It’s those with that type of expertise who will be undertaking those sorts of efforts.”
The Biden administration has scaled back America’s counterterrorism footprint in Afghanistan and Iraq to prioritize great power competition with near-peer adversaries like China, including the withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan and the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. Biden promised to end the “forever wars” of the past decades while retaining some ability for U.S. forces to conduct more-limited counterterrorism operations. But the “acute” threat posed by al-Shabab means it is one of the administration's “highest priorities” when it comes to countering groups that could pose a threat to America, the official said.
Al-Shabab, which was designated a terrorist organization in 2008, is responsible for a number of high-profile terrorist attacks across Africa, including a 2013 attack on a Nairobi mall that killed 67 people and a 2019 attack against a Nairobi hotel complex that left 21 people dead. Recently, al-Shabab attacked an African Union military base on May 3, claiming to kill nearly 60 soldiers. And just last week, four people were killed in an al-Shabab suicide attack near Mogadishu airport.
An increased U.S. military footprint in Somalia is expected to help lessen the number of attacks outside of the country, which will benefit American government officials beyond the Department of Defense.
“Restoring a persistent U.S. military presence will help to increase the security and the freedom of movement for other personnel such as State Department and USAID colleagues as they conduct critical diplomatic cand development missions,” the official said.