Biden approves ‘persistent’ US troop presence in Somalia after terrorist gains following Trump-era withdrawal

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Biden approves ‘persistent’ US troop presence in Somalia after terrorist gains following Trump-era withdrawal
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President Joe Biden has approved a Defence Department request to re-establish a “small, persistent” US troop presence in Somalia tasked with countering al-Shabaab terrorists who White House officials say grew stronger after the withdrawal of US forces from the war-torn country.

According to a senior administration official who briefed reporters on the plan, Mr Biden green-lit the redeployment earlier this month after repeated requests from Pentagon officials dating back to when he took office in January 2021.

The official cited the “challenging situation” the Biden administration had inherited thanks to former president Donald Trump’s decision to pull out the more than 700 special forces soldiers who’d been in the country.

Mr Trump had issued the withdrawal order in December 2020, both as a way of bolstering claims to have ended what he and his supporters often describe as “endless wars” and as a way of baking in his preferred policies while hobbling the incoming Biden administration. The withdrawal of US forces from Somalia was completed on 17 January 2021, just three days before Mr Biden took office.

Since then, US forces in the region have operated there on a “rotational basis,” a policy the official said had made it more difficult for the Pentagon to protect deployed forces and added additional burdens to those troops, who would have to spend “weeks or months” transporting, packing, and unpacking equipment as they rotated in and out.

“This is a step that rationalises what was essentially an irrational arrangement that we inherited,” the official said. “It was irrational because it created unnecessary and elevated risk to US forces as they moved in and out of the country on a rotational basis, and it gave us less payoff for incurring that risk because it disrupted their efficacy and the consistency of their work with partners.”

The official said the pace of al-Shebab attacks in the absence of US forces had become “quite appalling,” and stressed that troops Mr Biden is ordering back into Somalia — who will number fewer than 500 — will be tasked largely with assisting the Somali government’s counter-terrorism efforts.

“That means helping with training, that means helping turning intelligence into operations, that means assisting with how to defend oneself when undertaking … the more difficult operations, sometimes called the offensive or the clearing operations, but ultimately the operations to try to dislodge Shebab from what is a significant amount of territory,” he said.

Former President Donald Trump had withdrawn US forces from that region of Africa and other conflict zones around the world in the waning days of his presidency in a move that both reflected his desire to draw down the US military footprint around the world and presented a challenge for the incoming Biden administration as the withdrawal was ordered just a month before Mr Biden took office. It completed on 17 Jan 2021, three days before Mr Biden was sworn in.

The move was first reported by The New York Times on Monday, citing numerous administration officials, who noted that the president had also approved a request from the US Department of Defence to authorise the targeting of roughly a dozen al-Shabaab leaders.

The official said re-engaging within the country would allow US forces to “continue to manage and degrade” the threat posed by the group “in close coordination with our Somali partners, rather than permitting it to escalate it further and pose an increased risk to Americans in particular.

While al-Shabaab, unlike Isis or al-Qaeda, rarely inspires attacks on foreign soil, its’ role in al-Qaeda’s “global enterprise” is of concern to US officials because the Somalia-based group’s “upward battlefield and financial trajectory” could “create space” for it to “plan and ultimately to execute external attacks,” the official said, offering as an example a 2019 incident in which an al-Shabaab member was arrested for planning a 9/11-style hijacking attack while completing flight school in the Philippines.

Somalia is in the midst of a civil war that has been ongoing since 1991. Numerous armed groups are involved in the conflict including Al Shabab, which in 2022 “conducted indiscriminate and targeted attacks on civilians and forcibly recruited children,” according to the Human Rights Watch.

News of Mr Biden’s plans to restart the operation, which apparently was greenlit by the president earlier this month, came a day after Somalia’s new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamed was sworn into office.

One of the newly-elected president’s main goals is reconciliation with the secessionist government of Somaliland, a region in the northwest of the country that declared indepenence more than 20 years ago, sparking the civil war that has persisted ever since.

Decades later, the country’s government does not have full control of much of its own territory; the militant group Al Shabab has filled the vacuum in regions that government troops cannot hold effectively and controlled broad swaths of land in Somalia’s southern regions as of early last year. Despite the group’s territorial gains, it is only estimated to have 10,000 members or less.

The senior White House official said the US government is familiar with Mr Mohamed from his 2012-2017 term in the Somali presidency, and said there has been “a lot of consistency” in Somali leadership “in terms of support for and collaboration on counterterrorism”.

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

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