US troop withdrawal dismays some Somalis

Officials slam US move to pull back troops from Somalia as a blow to fight against al-Shabab group.

The US has announced that it will withdraw almost all of its roughly 700 troops in Somalia by January 15 [Senior Airman Kristin Savage/Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa via AP]

Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Somalia in the waning days of his presidency has triggered dismay from some Somalis, who appealed to the incoming President Joe Biden to reverse the decision.

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has between 650 to 800 troops on average in Somalia, Al Jazeera reported in November, including special forces helping to train Somalia’s army.

The Pentagon said Trump ordered a withdrawal of “the majority” of US troops “by early 2021”.

The Somali government has not yet made any comments on Friday’s decision.

“The US decision to pull troops out of Somalia at this critical stage in the successful fight against al-Shabab and their global terrorist network is extremely regrettable,” Senator Ayub Ismail Yusuf told Reuters news agency in a statement, referring to the al-Qaeda-linked group.

“US troops have made a huge contribution and had great impact on the training and operational effectiveness of Somali soldiers,” added Yusuf.

He tagged Biden in a tweet criticising the decision.

Somalia’s fragile internationally backed government is due to hold parliamentary elections this month and national elections in early February.

US troops have mostly been supporting Somali special forces known as Danab in operations against al-Shabab, whose attacks in nations like Kenya and Uganda have killed hundreds of civilians, including Americans.

If the withdrawal is permanent, “it will have a huge toll on counterterrorism efforts,” according to Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served as the Danab commander for three years until 2019.

The US programme to expand Danab to 3,000 men was supposed to continue until 2027, Sheikh said, but its future is now unclear.

William Lawrence, from the American University in Washington, DC, said Trump’s move would hurt American interests in eastern Africa.

“The blow from the US operations standpoint is that over time, it will lose its ability to Americanise on the ground and to have more interaction with Somali troops,” he said.

“It is a real blow to Somalia. There is no good military or strategic reason for this move. The reaction from Pentagon seems to be very negative.”

The US withdrawal comes at a turbulent time in the region.

Ethiopia, which is a major troop contributor to the peacekeeping forces and has thousands more troops in Somalia bilaterally, is distracted by an internal conflict that broke out last month.

It has disarmed hundreds of its peacekeepers already.

Somalia has been riven by civil war since 1991, but the entry of the peacekeeping force in 2008 helped incubate fledgling government structures that allowed for gradual reforms of the military, such as a biometric system to pay soldiers and the formation of Danab.

But many problems with the Somali military remain, including corruption and political interference.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies