May 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Reversing Trump, Biden approves redeployment of U.S. troops to Somalia

Biden and top military officials

President Biden with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (third from left) and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Milley (right). Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

President Biden has approved a request from the Pentagon to once again deploy U.S. special forces to Somalia to address the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabab, a senior administration official confirmed Monday.

Why it matters: Biden's decision to re-establish a "persistent presence" reverses former President Trump's order in the final weeks of his term to withdraw all 750 U.S. military personnel operating in Somalia.

The big picture: U.S. troops have been deploying to Somalia on a rotating basis since the official withdrawal in January 2021, which Trump had ordered over the objections of top generals.

  • Since then, al-Shabab has made significant territorial gains against Somalia's federal government and "increased the tempo of its attacks, including against U.S. personnel," a senior administration official told reporters.
  • The official said the Pentagon viewed the rotational dynamic as "inefficient" and "disruptive" to counterterrorism training efforts with local partners, and recommended that Biden restore a "persistent" U.S. military presence of "under 500 troops."
  • The official stressed that the deployment will involve repositioning U.S. forces from neighboring countries, meaning the scope of the mission and overall military resources dedicated to East Africa "will not significantly change."

What they're saying: "Al-Shabab has taken advantage of Somali instability and fractious politics to become al-Qaeda's largest and wealthiest global affiliate. It exerts influence essentially throughout the country of Somalia," the official said.

  • "We're concerned about the potential for al-Shabab's upward battlefield and financial trajectory to generate more space for the group to plan and ultimately to execute external attacks," the official continued.
  • Criticizing Trump's withdrawal decision for creating "unnecessary and elevated risks" to U.S. personnel moving in and out of Somalia, the official contended that the redeployment is "a step that rationalizes what was essentially an irrational argument."

Between the lines: The mission in Somalia, as in many other countries where the U.S. engaged in counterterrorism efforts, is focused in large part on providing training and intelligence to local partners to help build up their own security capacity.

  • The redeployment coincides with the return to power of Somalia's former president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who has pledged to bring stability to a country facing dual crises of war and drought.
  • It also draws a sharp contrast with Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan last year and declare an end to the "forever war" — a phrase also used to refer to U.S. counterterrorism operations in Somalia and other countries in the region.
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