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Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Somalia, briefly explained

Trump is pulling troops out of the country, but many are staying in the region.

Two men in fatigues stand atop a wall made of brown brick; another stands on a crate and looks over the wall. A fourth stands perpendicular to the wall at attention. All four hold assault rifles.
Somali forces at Sanguuni military base, where an American soldier was killed in 2018.
Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration will pull virtually all of the US’s roughly 700 troops in Somalia out of the country just five days before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The withdrawal, announced Friday by the Pentagon, ostensibly marks the latest attempt by President Donald Trump to scale back US presence overseas in what he’s described as costly and ineffective military operations across regions like the Middle East.

Acting defense secretary Christopher Miller announced in November that the US plans to reduce US troops from 4,500 to 2,500 in Afghanistan and from 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq. But the strategy shift in Somalia appears to be something different.

Rather than a case of troops being brought home, many of the forces will be repositioned to neighboring Kenya, according to a Defense Department official, although it’s unclear so far what percentage of the Somali-based troops will be restationed there.

“As a result of this decision, some forces may be reassigned outside of East Africa,” the Pentagon said in a statement on Friday. “However, the remaining forces will be repositioned from Somalia into neighboring countries in order to allow cross-border operations by both US and partner forces.”

What the US was doing in Somalia

The US forces stationed in Somalia were largely tasked with counterterrorism missions, with a particular focus on fighting the presence of al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group. And US troops have also worked on training Somali forces to conduct raids and capture al-Shabaab leaders.

According to the Pentagon, the mission against al-Shabaab won’t end — instead, the troops once stationed in the country will “maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia” from bases in Kenya and elsewhere.

The Pentagon also said the military will “retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia, and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland.”

How successful the US has been in Somalia at this mission isn’t exactly clear. And the US’s methods for accomplishing its work against al-Shabaab have been met with sharp criticism from watchdogs, who argue counterterrorism operations in East Africa have been conducted without a proper level of accountability.

One of the US’s primary tools against al-Shabaab has been drone strikes, which it has been conducting in Somalia since 2007. The frequency of those strikes have increased significantly during the Trump administration, with 47 strikes carried out in 2018 and 63 in 2019, according to the New York Times. All told, the Trump administration has carried out at least 192 drone strikes in Somalia, an analysis by New America found.

Under Trump’s tenure, the oversight guidelines for strikes in Somalia, some of which are meant to minimize civilian casualties, have also been loosened.

In the first seven months of the Trump administration, Trump oversaw more drone strikes than took place under George W. Bush and Barack Obama combined, and human rights groups have accused US officials of acknowledging a fraction of the known civilian casualties from those strikes. Amnesty International has accused the administration of passing off civilian killings as successful al-Shabaab raids, and of refusing to offer compensation when innocent people are accidentally killed.

Al-Shabaab appears to be resilient in the face of US intervention. A Defense Department inspector general report this year found that Somalia’s security forces appear to still be overwhelmed by the militant group.

“Despite many years of sustained Somali, U.S., and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded: al-Shabaab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests,” the report states.

And that ability has been on display of late. Recently, a CIA contractor was killed in action in Somalia, and al-Shabaab staged a January attack on a US facility in Kenya that resulted in the death of a US solider, two contractors, and the destruction of expensive military equipment — including a US surveillance craft.

Particularly in light of the January attack, US military officials in East Africa reportedly began to push for greater flexibility to launch airstrikes from Kenya, and Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta also reportedly asked Trump for greater aid with countering al-Shabaab earlier this year. The troop redeployment would appear to accomplish both these aims.

And indeed, while US training of Somali security forces is expected to end, airstrikes against militants in Somalia will be continuing, since the air bases housing the US drones that carry out strikes in Somalia are currently based outside the country.