US: Biden reverses Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Somalia

By Julian Pecquet

Posted on Tuesday, 17 May 2022 14:41, updated on Wednesday, 18 May 2022 00:42
U.S. Army paratroopers deploy to provide airfield security at Manda Bay
U.S. Army soldiers, assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF), 101st Airborne Division on a mission to bolster the security of Manda Bay Airfield, Kenya after an attack by Somalia's al Shabaab militants that killed three Americans, board a transport plane in Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti January 5, 2020. U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez/Handout via REUTERS.

President Joe Biden is sending several hundred troops back to Somalia to combat what the US is describing as a resurgent Al-Shabaab militant group following the Donald Trump administration’s withdrawal from the country.

The US president has approved a request from Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, which authorises the military to deploy Special Operations forces to Somalia. Biden has also reportedly approved the Pentagon’s request for standing authority to target about a dozen suspected leaders of the East African Al Qaeda affiliate.

The new order is not expected to change the scope of the current US mission in Somalia, which currently relies on troops rotating in and out of the country, a senior administration official said during a 16 May background call with reporters. Instead, it relies on “repositioning troops already stationed in neighbouring countries” in order to “reestablish a small, persistent US military presence” in Somalia.

“First and foremost, the president made this decision to increase the safety and effectiveness of our special operators,” the official said. “We’ve spent the past year, plus since the last administration’s decision, moving in and out of Somalia episodically to try to help with counterterrorism there.”

There’s no denying that the repositioning of forces out of Somalia has introduced new layers of complexity and risk.

Fewer than 500 troops are expected to be deployed, the source said, a smaller number than the 750 that President Trump removed in mid-January 2021, just days before stepping down. Most US troops in the region are housed at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the primary base of operations for US Africa Command in the Horn of Africa and the only permanent American base in Africa.

Since the withdrawal of the US troops, the insurgency group has “increased the tempo of its attacks”, the administration official said, “including against US personnel”. Earlier this month, an Al-Shabaab attack on an African Union base in southern Somalia killed at least 10 peacekeepers from Burundi.

Slow response

Biden’s order comes after months of prodding from the Department of Defence, whose advice Trump ignored when he pulled out the US troops.

“There’s no denying that the repositioning of forces out of Somalia has introduced new layers of complexity and risk,” the head of US Africa Command (AFRICOM), Gen. Stephen Townsend, told the Senate Armed Services Committee back in April 2021. “Our understanding of what’s happening in Somalia is less now than it was when we were there on the ground physically located with our partners.”

Townsend doubled down in a hearing before the same committee this March. “As al-Qaida’s largest and wealthiest global affiliate, if left unchecked al-Shabaab will soon expand beyond Somalia’s borders and become an even greater threat to regional stability and American interests,” he said in his written testimony. “ISIS-Somalia’s ability to connect, direct and fund ISIS elements elsewhere in Africa makes them a group of unique concern.”

The senior administration official said not having a “persistent” presence in the country has endangered US operators and proved inefficient. “Rotational periods of a certain number of weeks or months are consumed, in part by transporting and unpacking equipment, then by packing it back up at the end,” the source said. “All of this loses time when our operators can be doing the work we want them to do with partners to address terrorist threats.”

Local partners

The senior administration official said US troops work closely with local forces to build up Somali partner capacity. This includes training, intelligence gathering, and assisting with both defensive and clearing operations. “Implementing this, just like all of our counterterrorism work in Somalia, will be done in consultation with the Somali government,” the source said.

The source added that the defeat of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ‘Farmaajo’ on 15 May is not expected to disrupt the US repositioning. Former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud defeated Farmaajo in an election where only members of parliament could vote because of the instability plaguing the country.

The administration official welcomed working with the new government “that is emerging from an overall successful and important election process that occurred over the weekend”.

“This is someone with whom we are familiar given that he served as president from 2012 to 2017. Maybe even more importantly, I would say that across Somali leadership, there’s been a lot of consistency in terms of support for collaboration on counterterrorism,” the US official said.

“We have successfully coordinated with the Somalis across different evolutions in their leadership, and we are confident that we will continue to do so as the new administration settles in.”

Eye on Somaliland

The return of US troops could also prove a boon to Somaliland, the de facto autonomous entity in northern Somalia that declared its independence decades ago but lacks international recognition.

Somaliland has launched a full-court press to earn support from Congress and the Biden administration, notably dangling military basing rights at its port and airport at Hargeisa.

Ultimately, reestablishing a persistent US military presence in the country is […] a clear indicator of the […] dedication to achieving these broader goals

Townsend and US Ambassador to Somalia Larry André met with Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi in Hargeisa on 12 May before travelling to Berbera to view an airfield that US Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa assessed last summer.

“That assessment and this visit are a part of routine efforts to assess potential operating locations to be able to prepare for contingencies, exercise readiness or adjust force posture as needed,” AFRICOM said in a press release.

Big picture

Beyond the military targeting of Al-Shabaab, the senior administration official said the US is working on range of efforts to help rebuild the Somali state, advance economic reforms and provide humanitarian assistance to address “the conditions that allow terrorists to flourish”.

“Ultimately, reestablishing a persistent US military presence in the country is […] a clear indicator of the United States’ […] dedication to achieving these broader goals, and to demonstrating […] resolve as an enduring, credible partner for the Somali government.”

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