US will soon redeploy troops in Somalia
The Biden administration in the US recently announced it would be providing a “persistent presence” in Somalia of up to “around 450” US soldiers, reversing a decision taken by US president Donald Trump in December 2020 to withdraw about 700 troops from the country. Security policy expert Paul D. Williams provides an insight into the change of tack.
What prompted the US decision to redeploy in Somalia?
Several factors probably prompted the Biden administration’s decision. First, in my view, this isn’t a change of policy, it’s about logistics. US troops will continue to perform the same tasks as before. But they will once again be based in Somalia rather than outside the country, which required them to ‘commute’ to work. Commuting was far from ideal.
Second, the security conditions in Somalia appear to be deteriorating with al-Shabaab able to increase its attacks against civilians as well as Somali, African Union and other forces. Following the US withdrawal, one estimate suggested al-Shabaab attacks surged by 17% in 2021 compared to the previous year, including a 32% increase in battles against other security forces.
Third, the Biden administration has been conducting a review of its Somalia policy for well over a year. Perhaps it is now finally drawing conclusions, such as basing some troops inside Somalia is more sensible than having them continue to commute.
Finally, the new Somali president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is very receptive to the move, calling the US “a reliable partner in our quest to (sic) stability and fight against terrorism.” A senior adviser to the new president agreed, saying Trump’s decision to withdraw was “a wrong” and “hasty decision” which “disrupted counterterrorism operations.”
Has the role of the US troops changed?
US policy towards Somalia has not changed; it still includes military as well as political, economic, and humanitarian dimensions. The overall goal is to stabilise the country, contain and weaken al-Shabaab, and build an effective set of state institutions.
The military is often the most visible form of assistance but it should support Washington’s overall political objectives.
Military tasks include supporting some of the African Union’s troops in the new Transition Mission (ATMIS); training and advising elements of the Somali security forces, including most prominently the Somali National Army’s Danab advanced infantry brigade; and participating in joint operations with those forces.
With the consent of the Somali government, the arrangement also permits the US military to engage in unilateral strikes.
The longer-term project is for the US troops to help build an effective set of security services in Somalia. This includes the necessary infrastructure and institutional architecture to make those forces sustainable. It remains to be seen how much emphasis US troops will put on kinetic operations compared to security sector reform.