Near the end of his term, former President Donald Trump ordered a withdrawal of U.S. troops and equipment out of Somalia, where the military had been deployed for years in small numbers to fight against the militant terrorist organization al-Shabab.
Although that fight continued from just beyond Somalia’s borders, new reports indicate that President Joe Biden is considering a move that would send troops back into the war-torn East African nation.
“Commuting to work”
Prior to the withdrawal, there had been as many as 900 U.S. troops in Somalia, with those forces largely providing assistance and training to the Somali military.
The U.S. mission also included gathering intelligence on al-Shabab and other terrorist threats as well as conducting strikes against military targets.
Just days before Biden took office, however, the bulk of those assets were moved out of Somalia and into neighboring countries like Djibouti and Kenya.
Asked at that time if Biden would reverse his predecessor’s decision to remove the troops, U.S. Africa Command spokesperson Col. Chris Kairns said that it “would be inappropriate” to “speculate or engage in hypotheticals” related to the issue.
About three months later, U.S. Africa Command Chief Gen. Stephen Townsend said during U.S. Senate testimony that American forces were still “commuting to work” in Somalia.
“New layers of complexity”
With aircraft and other assets based in neighboring countries, though, he said that “they have reduced station time” over a given target, which means a shorter window in which to gather intelligence or conduct airstrikes.
Lamenting the “new layers of complexity and risk” caused by the repositioning of such equipment, the general testified that al-Shabab was believed to still pose a risk to U.S. interests and allies, addressing the perceived need to “account for” the decreased “situational awareness” regarding the terror group’s actions in Somalia.
As Voice of America reported last month, the Trump administration does not bear all of the blame for any possible shortcomings in the U.S. military’s capability to exploit opportunities for strikes against al-Shabab.
The Biden administration quietly changed protocols for airstrikes by implementing a requirement that the White House had to review and approve any conducted outside of a formal war zone. As of that article’s publication, the current administration had not launched a single airstrike against targets in Somalia.
In contrast, the Trump administration conducted at least seven strikes in that nation during January, despite its decision to withdraw military assets. It remains unclear at this point whether Biden will reverse his predecessor’s order, but Somali officials have expressed concerns that a combination of the withdrawal and new limitations have served to embolden al-Shabab.