U.S. troops who are pulling out of Somalia aren’t leaving the continent, or even the region, the general who leads U.S. Africa Command said in a statement this weekend.
Some number of troops are moving to other bases in east Africa, which could include Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti or Manda Bay in Kenya, though AFRICOM boss Army Gen. Stephen Townsend did not elaborate.
A limited force presence will remain in Somalia, according to AFRICOM spokesman Air Force Col. Chris Karns. He declined to discuss numbers and locations, citing force protection concerns.
The Pentagon announced Dec. 4 that President Donald Trump ordered AFRICOM to reposition the majority of personnel and assets out of Somalia by early 2021. The U.S. mission in Somalia has involved airstrikes and nurturing local forces — especially the Danab light infantry — to combat the jihadist group Al-Shabaab.
“To be clear, the U.S. is not withdrawing or disengaging from east Africa,” Townsend wrote in his statement. “We remain committed to helping our African partners build a more secure future. We also remain capable of striking al-Shabaab at the time and place of our choosing — they should not test us.”
There are approximately 700 U.S. troops in Somalia, including special operations forces and conventional troops who provide security at forward outposts like Baledogle Airfield, which has faced brief, but complex attacks before.
Townsend said he directed the activation of a joint task force, called JTF-Quartz, built around the headquarters of Special Operations Command-Africa, to oversee the repositioning of U.S. forces.
“JTF-Quartz is commanded by the SOCAF commander, Maj. Gen. Dag Anderson,” Townsend said. “I have just returned from visiting him at his forward headquarters in east Africa, where I met with Dag and his commanders to review their posture and plans. JTF-Quartz is ready to go.”
U.S. troops in Somalia periodically find themselves engaged in combat, including a May 9 attack on U.S. soldiers assigned to a coordination cell in Mogadishu, officials previously told Army Times. Seven soldiers received combat action badges following that attack.
Numbers provided by AFRICOM’s Army component show that 160 combat badges were approved in fiscal 2020. About two-thirds of those were from a large attack on Baledogle Airfield in late September 2019.
Not all combat incidents involving Somali militants take place in Somalia, however. A Jan. 5 attack by Al-Shabaab on Manda Bay in Kenya claimed the lives of one U.S. soldier and two Pentagon contractors.
After the incident, AFRICOM dispatched soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, assigned to the East Africa Response Force, to reinforce Manda Bay and build up its defensive positions.
The mission in Somalia also involves U.S. intelligence agencies and contractors. One CIA officer was killed in combat this November, the details of which remain ambiguous, and contractors from Bancroft Global Development have been used to recruit and train Danab light infantry.
AFRICOM numbers show the command has conducted 50 airstrikes against ISIS-Somalia and Al-Shabaab this year — short of the 63 airstrikes conducted in 2019, but higher than the 47 airstrikes in 2018 and the 35 in 2017.
“The pressure placed on the Al-Shabaab network, impacts their spread to other places,” said Karns, the AFRICOM spokesman, in an email. “The airstrikes have definitely resulted in disruptions to Al-Shabaab’s ability to execute and plan operations, restricted their movement as well as impeded their ability to expand operations further.”
Townsend told Congress in March that Al-Shabaab remains a threat to neighboring countries like Kenya and Uganda, where the group has carried out attacks in the past.
The Defense Intelligence Agency assessed that al Shabaab poses a low threat to the U.S. homeland, though the group’s emir, Ahmed Diriye, has called for violence against the United States and its interests abroad, according to a Pentagon Inspector General report from late 2019.
Karns declined to discuss whether U.S. troops could be brought back into Somalia under the incoming Joe Biden administration.
“I don’t want to get into hypotheticals about future force positioning,” Karns said. “How we go about conducting the mission will adjust, but our support continues, as does our commitment to dismantling Al-Shabaab’s ability to plot and plan attacks. U.S. Africa Command’s work in East Africa provides a valuable threat detection capability and basic security insurance for America.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer