Some experts have cautioned that the withdrawal of an estimated 700 U.S. military personnel comes at the worst imaginable time for Somalia, as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab terrorist group ramps up its bomb-making skills and proceeds to attack military and civilian targets even in the capital, Mogadishu. The removal comes less than a month before Somalia is set to carry a national election.
Somalia has suffered decades of political instability but in recent years a peacekeeping force from the African Union along with US troops have reclaimed control of Mogadishu and other areas from al-Shabab - an al-Qaeda affiliate.
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The group has fought for more than 10 years to impose a regime based on a strict version of Sharia law and often attacks civilian and military targets, carrying out bombings and assassinations in the capital.
Defectors from the group have explained how hard it was to escape its clutches and become deradicalized. A report in October said the group raises as much revenue as the country's authorities, using intimidation and violence to demand money from businesses and farmers.
The U.S. personnel prepared and supported Somali forces, including its elite special forces, in counter-terror operations. They are being moved to other African countries such as neighboring Kenya and Djibouti, home of the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa, but U.S. Africa Command spokesman Col. Chris Karns would not say how many are going where.
Questioned whether the administration of President-elect Joe Biden will roll back the withdrawal, Karns replied in an email: “It would be inappropriate for us to speculate or engage in hypotheticals.”
Karns said the operation enters its “next phase of periodic engagement with Somali security forces.” He did not elaborate.
The withdrawal was declared late last year, with a Jan. 15 deadline.
The U.S. military, which has carried out an increasing amount of airstrikes against al-Shabab and a small band of fighters connected to the ISIS terrorist group during Trump’s administration, says it will keep pressuring al-Shabab. The terrorist group has an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 fighters.
Those Somali forces, even U.S. assessments have said, are not ready to take over responsibility for the country’s safety, particularly as a 19,000-strong multinational African Union force is also set to depart by the end of this year.
The U.S. Africa Command commander, Gen. Stephen Townsend, noted “no serious injuries or significant loss of equipment, despite significant efforts to target us by al-Shabab” during the “intense” operation to remove the U.S. personnel.
Townsend on Saturday visited Manda Bay in Kenya, where the U.S. Africa Command said: “substantial enhancements have been made to physical security” after a deadly al-Shabab attack a year ago destroyed U.S. aircraft used against it in Somalia.