Reversing a decision by predecessor Donald Trump, President Joe Biden has approved a Pentagon request to redeploy several hundred American troops to Somalia for what the National Security Council calls "a persistent U.S. military presence" there as part of counterterrorism efforts.
The move will reestablish an open-ended mission in Somalia assisting the country in its fight against al-Shabab, a local al-Qaida affiliate.
The group once ruled Somalia and has been seeking to regain territorial control over parts of the country. It has carried out overseas terror attacks in Kenya, including in January 2020 when three Americans died in an assault targeting a U.S. base.
The Biden administration believes the move will "enable our partners to conduct a more effective fight against al-Shabab, which is al-Qaida's largest, wealthiest, and deadliest affiliate and poses a heightened threat to Americans in East Africa," National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said Monday.
A senior administration official told reporters later Monday that the number of U.S. troops returning to Somalia would be "under 500" and that they would continue with the same mission of training Somalia's military and assisting local forces on counterterrorism missions. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby stressed on Monday afternoon that "our forces are not now nor will they be directly engaged in combat operations."
The Pentagon is still evaluating when the return of forces will take place, in consultation with the Somali government.
"This is a repositioning of forces already in theater who have travelled in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis since the previous administration made the precipitous decision to withdraw at the end of 2020," Watson, the NSC spokeswoman, said.
"The decision to reintroduce a persistent presence was made to maximize the safety and effectiveness of our forces and enable them to provide more efficient support to our partners," Watson added.
In December 2020, near the end of his presidential term, Trump ordered the withdrawal of the nearly 750 U.S. troops in Somalia as part of a broader strategy to further reduce the troop presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Trump had committed to ending what he labeled "forever wars."
His draw-down decision ended a longterm presence of U.S. special operations troops that had been assisting the Somali military against al-Shabab. Since then, American personnel have been rotating into Somalia on temporary training missions lasting up to a few months.
President Biden's decision to recommit forces there will allow troops to again stay in an open-ended posture against al-Shabab, according to the administration. The new presence will end the "in and out" rotation implemented after Trump's decision, the senior Biden official told reporters Monday.
The official contrasted the troop deployment with President Trump's decision to remove forces, calling the earlier draw-down "irrational because it created unnecessary and elevated risk to forces as they moved in and out of the country on a rotational basis."
The official added that "it gave us less payoff for incurring that risk because it disrupted their efficacy and consistency of their work with partners."
The senior official framed the decision as part of the administration's global counterterrorism effort that also focuses on prioritizing limited resources against "the most dangerous and ascendant threats."
"In a world in which we must prioritize how we approach global counterterrorism, al-Shabab is a notable priority given the threat it poses," the official said — both in Somalia and overseas. The official highlighted federal charges against a Somali man whom authorities claim was taking flight lessons in the Philippines for a 9/11-style attack on an American city. The suspect, Cholo Abdi Abdullah, has pleaded not guilty.
"It was a mistake to withdraw forces in 2020,” Mick Mulroy, an ABC News contributor who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defense and is also a veteran of operations in Somalia, told ABC News.
"Remote training was not practical enough to stem the expansion of al-Shabab or collect on threats coming from this terrorist organization," he said.
"Today’s decision to send special operations forces back into the country to work with our key partners and the newly chosen president, who is very familiar with our operations from his previous time as president, was the right one,” Mulroy said.