Biden Approves Plan to Redeploy Several Hundred Ground Forces Into Somalia

WASHINGTON — President Biden has signed an order authorizing the military to redeploy hundreds of Special Operations troops in Somalia — largely President Donald J. Trump’s decision to withdraw nearly all 700 ground troops stationed there, according to four officials familiar with the matter.

In addition, Mr. Biden approved a Pentagon request for permanent authority to attack a dozen suspected leaders of Al Shabab, the Somali terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, three of the officials said. Since Biden took office, air strikes have been largely confined to those intended to defend partner forces facing an imminent threat.

Together, Mr Biden’s decisions, described by the officials on condition of anonymity, will reinvigorate an open-ended US counter-terrorism operation that amounted to a slow war by three governments. The move contrasts with his decision last year to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, saying that “it is time to end the eternal war”.

Mr Biden signed the proposal from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III in early May, officials said. In a statement, Adrienne Watson, the spokeswoman for the National Security Council, acknowledged the move and said it would allow “a more effective fight against Al Shabab”.

“The decision to reintroduce a continued presence was made to maximize the security and effectiveness of our armed forces and enable them to support our partners more efficiently,” she said.

Ms Watson did not specify how many troops the army would deploy. But two people familiar with the matter said the number would be limited to about 450. That will replace a system in which US troops training and advising Somali and African troops have made short stays since Mr. Trump issued what Ms. Watson described as a “hasty decision to withdraw.”

The Biden administration’s strategy in Somalia is to try to mitigate the threat posed by Al Shabab by suppressing its ability to plan and conduct complicated operations, a senior government official said. Those include a deadly attack on a US air base in Manda Bay, Kenya, in January 2020.

In particular, the official said, targeting a small leadership cadre — especially those suspected of playing a role in developing plots beyond Somalia’s borders or who have special skills — is aimed at mitigating “the threat to an acceptable level”.

Asked to reconcile the return to greater engagement in Somalia with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, following a deal Mr Trump struck with the Taliban, the senior administration official argued that the two countries exhibited significantly different complexities.

First, the official said, the Taliban have expressed no intention of attacking the United States, and other militant groups in Afghanistan do not control key enclaves of territory from which they must operate and plan.

Since Al Shabab appears to pose a greater threat, the government concluded that more direct involvement in Somalia was beneficial, the official said. The strategy would aim to disrupt a few Shabab leaders who are seen as a direct threat to “us, and our interests and our allies”, and to maintain “a very careful presence on the ground to communicate with our partners.” to work”.

Intelligence officials estimate that Al Shabab has about 5,000 to 10,000 members; the group, which formally sworn allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012 to impose its extremist version of Islam on the chaotic country in the Horn of Africa.

While Al Shabab fights mainly in Somalia and only occasionally attacks neighboring countries, some members are said to have ambitions to attack the United States. In December 2020, Manhattan prosecutors charged an accused Shabab agent from Kenya with plotting a September 11-style attack on a US city. He was arrested in the Philippines while training to fly airplanes.

Mr. Biden’s decision followed months of inter-agency deliberations led by Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the White House’s top counterterrorism adviser, about whether to accept the Pentagon plan, maintain the status quo, or further reducing involvement in Somalia.

In evaluating those options, Ms. Sherwood-Randall and other top security officials visited Somalia and nearby Kenya and Djiboutihousing both US troops, in October.

The government’s deliberations on whether and how to return to Somalia more vigorously were complicated by the political chaos there, as factions in the fledgling government fought each other and the elections were postponed. But Somalia recently elected a new parliament and over the weekend its leaders elected a new president, who decided to return to power Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who led the country from 2012 to 2017.

A new senior official on Mr Mohamud’s team welcomed the move by the Biden government.

It was both timely and a step in the right direction as it “coincides with the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected president who was to plan his offensive against Al Shabab,” the official said.

For months, US commanders have warned that the short training missions US Special Operations forces have conducted in Somalia since Trump withdrew most US troops in January 2021 have not worked well. The morale and capacity of the partner units are eroding, they say.

Of each eight-week cycle, the senior government official said, US trainers don’t spend about three on partner forces because the Americans were either not in Somalia or transiting — and getting in and out was the most dangerous part. Other officials have also characterized the system of in-and-out rotation, rather than being constantly deployed there, as expensive and inefficient.

“Our periodic deployment – ​​also known as commuting to work – has created new challenges and risks for our troops,” General Stephen J. Townsend, head of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. “My assessment is that it is ineffective.”

Intelligence officials have raised the alarm about Al Shabab in recent years as it expanded its territory in Somalia. In her last year in office, the Obama administration had considered Al Shabab part of the armed conflict the United States had authorized against the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks.

That hiatus would last just a few months as the Biden administration looked into how targeting rules had worked under both the Trump and Obama administrations, and devised its own rules. But while it has largely completed a proposed replacement described as a hybrid between the two previous versions, its final approval has stalled amid competing national security policy issues.

The military, for its part, has attempted to further train, advise and assist Somali and African Union troops without a sustained presence on the ground, but the duration of shorter stays has been gradually extended. During a visit to Somalia in FebruaryGeneral Townsend warned of the threat Al Shabab posed to the region.

“Al Shabab remains Al Qaeda’s largest, richest and deadliest partner, responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents, including Americans,” he said. “Disrupting Al Shabab’s malicious intent requires Somali leadership and continued support from Djibouti, Kenya, the US and other members of the international community.”

Abdi Latif Dahiru contributed reporting from Nairobi.


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