WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump, pressing his end-of-term troop withdrawals from conflicts around the world, will pull American forces out of Somalia, where they have been trying to push back advances by Islamic insurgents in the Horn of Africa.
The Pentagon announced Friday that virtually all of the approximately 700 troops in Somalia — most Special Operations forces who have been conducting training and counterterrorism missions — will be leaving by Jan. 15, five days before President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated.
The withdrawal from Somalia followed Trump’s orders to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and reflected the president’s long-standing desire to end long-running military engagements against Islamic insurgencies in failed and fragile countries in Africa and the Middle East, a grinding mission that has spread since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The debate over the value of counterterrorism and training missions like the one in Somalia, site of the bloody “Black Hawk Down” debacle in 1993, is growing — among the public, in Congress and even in the Pentagon. Among the points of contention is whether the United States should expend life and treasure for shadowy security operations in remote parts of the world.
But Trump’s push to leave Somalia before he leaves office comes at a delicate time for the East African nation: It is preparing for parliamentary elections next month and a presidential election scheduled for early February. The removal of American troops could complicate any ability to keep election rallies and voting safe from al-Shabab bombers. It also comes at a time of political turmoil in neighboring Ethiopia, whose army has also battled al-Shabab.
Supporters of the mission say it is important for the United States to continue strikes on militants and to help train government forces to prevent their territory from becoming a haven for planning terrorist strikes, much like how al-Qaida plotted the Sept. 11 attacks from a home base in Afghanistan. Even some of Trump’s staunchest Republican allies in Congress have warned against troop cuts in Somalia.
“This strategy has worked, and our continued presence there has prevented al-Shabab from expanding its foothold in the region,” Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement this fall when hints of Trump’s likely actions surfaced.
Many of the American troops will be “repositioned” to nearby Kenya, a Defense Department official said Friday. That means airstrikes by drones on militants in Somalia could continue but efforts to effectively train local security forces on the ground would end.
It was not immediately clear whether other parts of the U.S. presence in Somalia — such as CIA officers, the ambassador and other State Department diplomats who are based at a heavily fortified bunker at the airport in Mogadishu, the Somali capital — will also withdraw.
The Pentagon pledged that efforts to safeguard U.S. interests would continue.
“The U.S. is not withdrawing or disengaging from Africa,” it said in a statement. “We remain committed to our African partners and enduring support through a whole-of-government approach.”
The United States will retain the ability to conduct counterterrorism operations in Somalia, especially drone strikes, and to collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the United States and allies from militant forces in the country.
“As a result of this decision, some forces may be reassigned outside of East Africa,” the statement said, adding that “the remaining forces will be repositioned from Somalia into neighboring countries in order to allow cross-border operations by both U.S. and partner forces to maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia.”
The mission in Somalia has been in the spotlight in recent days, after it was reported that a veteran CIA officer was killed in combat in Somalia, according to current and former American officials. The death has already rekindled debate over American intelligence’s counterterrorism operations in Africa. The officer was a member of the CIA’s paramilitary division, the Special Activities Center, and a former member of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6.
Two weeks ago, Trump ordered the military to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, halving the number there to just over 2,000. Reductions in the U.S. troop presence in Iraq also are underway.
Also this week, the Pentagon policy official overseeing the military’s efforts to combat the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria was fired after a White House appointee told him that the United States had won that war and that his office had been disbanded. The ouster of the official, Christopher Maier, chief of the Pentagon’s “Defeat ISIS” task force since March 2017, came just three weeks after Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper and three other Pentagon officials and replaced them with loyalists.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, who has been carrying out Trump’s purge at the Pentagon since he took over from Esper last month, characterized the moves as a reflection of the success of the U.S.-led effort to crush the terrorist state that the Islamic State group created in large sections of Iraq and Syria.
Defense Department officials familiar with internal deliberations said the Somalia pullout would not apply to American forces stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where U.S. drones that carry out airstrikes in Somalia are based.
Keeping those air bases would mean retaining the military’s ability to use drones to attack militants with al-Shabab, an al-Qaida-linked terrorist group — at least those deemed to pose a threat to U.S. interests.
Since Trump ran for office in 2016, exiting foreign conflicts has been a central component of his “America First” agenda. That appeal has particularly animated his base of populist voters, many of them veterans who have grown weary of their roles in long-standing wars. The president views his record on the issue as important to any political future he might pursue.