US President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to withdraw American troops from Somalia where the US military is fighting al-Shabaab, the local affiliate of the al Qaeda terrorist group. The move will unwittingly lead the US to cede strategic ground in East Africa to its global rivals including China and Russia. And in also provides a strategic advantage to the terrorist group, analysts warn.
Why is Trump Pulling American Troops from Somalia?
In planning the withdraw, the 45th President of the world’s largest military has said he wants to get his country out of “ridiculous endless wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”
The Pentagon has about 6,000 troops in Africa, including about 1,400 in West Africa, primarily in Niger. There are some 4,400 boots are in East Africa, with Djibouti hosting the largest American permanent military base in Africa. Restive Somalia has between 650 to 800 American boots acting as advisors to African forces combating al-Shabab.
Analyst: US Withdrawal Will Help al-Shabaab
According to Tricia Bacon, a Somalia specialist at American University in Washington and a former State Department counterterrorism analyst, a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia will give al-Shabaab a decisive strategic advantage in the conflict in Somalia and increase the terrorist threat in East Africa, including to Americans and American targets.
The reported directive to get out of Somalia comes weeks ahead of the Nov. 3 election in the US and hard on the heels of a declaration Trump made on Twitter early this October declaring that all US forces would be out of Afghanistan by Christmas.
‘There’s no Strategy, There’s Just Electioneering’
“There’s no strategy, there’s just electioneering,” says Kori Schake, who directs foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
It turns out the Somalia exit strategy of seeking to extract the U.S. from foreign military entanglements is broadly drawn from one of Trump’s campaign issues as he seeks to win four more years in the White House. He has discussed the possible troop reduction in Somalia with his top advisers, including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, as Bloomberg reported on Oct. 13, citing unnamed administration sources.
“Al Shabaab will be quick to capitalize on a US withdrawal that will no doubt cause US regional partners to rush for the exits. A short-sighted political decision to pull out of Somalia now would harm America’s future security,” says Katherine Zimmerman of The American Enterprise Institute a public policy think tank based in Washington.
“Withdrawing from Somalia, will also harm US interests in the great-power competition. Counterterrorism partnerships also help keep key states aligned with the US, and by deserting these partners the US cedes regional presence and influence in the Horn of Africa. China, which opened its first international military base in Djibouti in 2017, will seize the opportunity to add to its gains along the region’s strategic global waterways,” writes Zimmerman.
Top Military Brass Seek Distance from President’s Troop Withdrawal Timetable
According to the Times, even senior military commanders have sought to distance themselves from their commander in chief’s troop withdrawal forecasts, which have caught them off guard. And critics say that in seeking to fulfill a campaign pledge to bring American troops home from “endless wars,” the president is exposing the country to even greater national security risks.
It turns out Defense Secretary Markj Esper has undertaken a review of each geographic combatant command, its missions and assignments, and will assess whether allies and partner nations can take on more responsibilities, says Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman, according to the Washington Post, newspaper this Jan 20.
Esper believes European allies can take on additional missions and allow the Pentagon to focus more elsewhere, the senior US official told the Washington Post.
Sec Def Esper: ‘US Africa Command Remains Committed to Working with Somali and International Partners’
The review began with the region under US Africa Command, which includes the entire continent except for Egypt, which falls under US Central Command.
“While I won’t speculate on future force posture, I will tell you that US Africa Command remains committed to working with Somali and international partners to enhance long-term regional stability by degrading violent extremist organization threats and organizations in Somalia,” AFRICOM spokesperson Kelly Cahalan said in a statement sent to Stars and Stripes.
The US deployment to Somalia which begun in 2017 consists of a Navy SEAL-led team, whose core task is to train and build Somalia its own elite light infantry force.
Code named Danab, which in the Somali dialect means lightning, the force is widely thought to be too small to carry out operations in a country with a coastline almost as long as the east coast of the US.
The plan, US defense officials say, is to eventually build Danab into a force of 3,000 soldiers capable of clearing militants from villages and towns across Somalia.
The Threat from Al-Shabaab
At first al-Shabaab built networks to generate funds and recruits, largely refraining from attacks. That changed in March 2007, after the deployment of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a regional force sent to prop up the body then recognized as the Somali government. The group has repeatedly struck countries that had dispatched troops to AMISOM.
And seeking international recognition al-Shabaab formally pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda In 2012.
But long before that, they fought Western-backed governments in Mogadishu as the group sought to impose its extremist interpretation of Islam across Somalia. In defending the fragile government, the US has largely relied on proxy forces, including about 20,000 African Union peacekeepers from Uganda, Kenya and other East African nations.
The US military estimates that Al-Shabaab commands somewhere between 5,000 to 7,000 fighters and still controls about 20% of Somalia’s territory. While the group remains focused on recapturing power and enforcing its variant of Islamic law in Somalia, it has long operated elsewhere in East Africa as well.
Somalia, a country that occupies a key strategic location in the Horn of Africa, has faced civil war, droughts and an influx of Islamist extremists over the years.
The Danab Advisory Mission
While US military advisers have been in Somalia since at least 2013, the effort has gotten a major boost under the Trump Administration, which volunteered to undertake the Danab advisory mission in 2017 in addition to expanding drone strikes, and in December reopened the American diplomatic mission in Mogadishu for the first time since 1991.
Trump authorized the military to carry out precision strikes targeting al-Shabaab in March 2017. Prior to that the US military was authorized to conduct airstrikes only in defense of advisers on the ground. The administration regards the fight against the militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia as critical to protecting America’s primary strategic allies in the region such as Kenya and Ethiopia which have been hit by al-Shabaab-linked terror attacks in the recent years.
Most US troops in Somalia are Special Operations forces stationed at a small number of bases spread across the country. Their missions include training and advising Somali army and counterterrorism troops and conducting kill-or-capture raids of their own.
What Is the US Mission in Somalia?
At his confirmation hearing in August 2018, Washington’s current ambassador to Somalia,(CONFIRM) former acting assistant secretary of state for African affairs Donald Yamamoto, outlined four goals for US policy in the Horn of Africa, namely: Support for the building of democratic institutions and holding politicians accountable; building effective Somali security forces; implementation of stabilization and economic recovery programs; and delivering humanitarian assistance across the whole of Somalia.
These goals were broadly consistent with the Trump administration’s Africa strategy, publicly released in December 2018, which emphasized countering threats posed by “radical Islamic terrorism,” advancing US commercial interests on the continent, and using aid efficiently and effectively.
On April 13, 2019, the Trump Administration signed an executive order extending a presidential declaration of a national emergency concerning Somalia for another year, calling the Islamist insurgency plaguing that country an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the US.
At the time US defense officials said the mission in the country was likely to take years to complete, as CNN reported.
The commitment to the East African nation at the time came after the President had signaled a desire to reduce US troop levels across the globe and as the administration was in the process of withdrawing forces from Syria.
While officials say the effort is making progress, they tell CNN that the US training mission is likely to not be completed until 2026, showing the major mistake of Trump wishing to pull the troops out now.
“A US drawdown will cause other partners to withdraw, mirroring similarly reduced commitments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. Al-Shabaab will overwhelm the remaining local security forces and possibly collapse the weak Somali government. A strengthened al-Shabaab imperils regional security. Al-Shabaab is already a well-established threat to Kenya, including the country’s tourism industry. Al-Shabaab has also signaled its intent to target Ethiopia, which may become vulnerable due to domestic turmoil,” CNN reported.