President Joe Biden has ordered the resumption of a U.S. troop presence in Somalia to help local authorities fight the al-Shabaab militant group, a senior U.S. official told reporters Monday.
The move overturns the order of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who in late 2020 withdrew almost all U.S. forces from the East African country as he sought to end U.S. military action abroad in the last weeks of his tenure.
Biden “approved a request from the Department of Defense to relocate US forces in East Africa to restore a small permanent US military presence in Somalia,” the official said.
Less than 500 troops will be involved, the official said, adding that Somalia “takes some time to reach this level”.
This is slightly less than the original footprint of 750 American soldiers who spent years in the country conducting operations against al-Shabaab but were later removed under Trump and relocated to neighboring Kenya and Djibouti.
In December 2020, before leaving office, Trump sent a withdrawal from Somalia “against the advice of the top US military leadership,” the official said.
“Since then, al-Shabaab … unfortunately, has only intensified,” the official added.
Support from Mogadishu
The official suggested that Biden’s decision was more about the security of US forces than Sunday’s election of Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohammad, after more than a year of political instability and a drought crisis.
Somali leaders have in recent years consistently maintained cooperation with the U.S. military in the fight against Islamic extremists, the official said, adding that Washington remains confident that the new administration will continue to do so.
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Congratulating the newly elected President, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken called on him to develop a “security force to prevent and combat terrorism and take full responsibility for security from the African Union Transitional Mission in Somalia.”
By reintroducing US troops, Washington will reduce the risks associated with the re-mobilization of forces conducting counter-terrorist operations in Somalia.
This step will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of special operators, as well as allow continuous periods of training with local partners.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin considered the current form of operations “ineffective and increasingly unsustainable.”
“The goal here is to be able to fight al-Shabaab more effectively by local forces … ‘Al-Shabaab has grown and is a threat,” he said.
Kirby also insisted that US troops would act as an auxiliary element and that Somali forces would continue to be responsible for the direct fight against extremists.
“US troops will continue to be used in training, advising and equipping partner forces to provide them with the tools they need to disrupt, degrade and control al-Shabaab,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
“Our forces are not involved now and will not be directly involved in the fighting,” he said.