Somalia’s newly elected president has expressed his delight at the news that US special operations personnel will return to the country to assist in the fight against the al-Shabab terrorist group.
In a tweet on Tuesday, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud congratulated US President Joe Biden, calling the US “a loyal partner in our drive for stability and the fight against terrorism.”
For years, US soldiers have collaborated with Somali forces in their efforts to limit al-Shabab, al-wealthiest Qaida’s and most powerful affiliate, according to US military and intelligence officials. Former US President Donald Trump, though, ordered approximately 750 US troops in Somalia to withdraw in December 2020, instead flying in for intermittent battles.
However, the choice was increasingly controversial among US military officers, who grumbled about having to “commute” to work, and certain Somali politicians, who watched al-troops Shabab’s rise in the absence of a sustained US presence.
“This was an error in judgment. Before the official announcement on Tuesday, a top aide to Mohamud told VOA that the withdrawal was a rushed move.
“It hampered counter-terrorism activities,” the Somali adviser said, declining to be identified since his role in the administration has not yet been made public. “It was the right decision to reinstate and start with the new president, and it came at the perfect time.”
Officials from the United States agreed that waiting any longer would be costly, explaining their decision to send less than 500 troops to Somalia as part of a “continuous presence.”
Since the December 2020 decision to end the US military engagement in Somalia, Al-Shabab has “sadly only grown stronger,” according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the new authorisation.
The official stated that Al-Shabab “has upped the tempo of its attacks, particularly targeting US personnel.” “We’re afraid that al-upward Shabab’s battlefield and financial trajectory would provide more room for the group to plot and eventually execute external strikes.”
Al-Shabab has grown more powerful, according to intelligence obtained by various countries and shared with the UN’s terrorism monitoring committee earlier this year.
According to estimates published in February, the al-Qaida offshoot currently has up to 12,000 fighters and can generate up to $10 million in monthly revenue.
Overall, US officials said it became evident that a permanent US presence on the ground in Somalia was required.
“This is the best option for us to maintain what has remained a very valuable advise-and-assist and training mission,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said Monday to reporters.
While details are still being ironed out, much of the US attention is expected to be on assisting Somalia’s elite counterterrorism forces, the Danab Brigade, who had been struggling even before the decision to withdraw US personnel in November 2020.
Despite considerable progress, the Somali government had “not completed benchmarks for the development of its security forces,” according to a 2020 report from the US Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, and most units “remain to rely on foreign support for operations.”
The lack of a permanent US military presence in Somalia, along with the Biden administration’s cautious stance, has resulted in a reduction in US airstrikes in support of Somali forces, which top Somali officials expect would change with the deployment of US forces.
“Drone strikes aimed at senior al-Shabab fighters are highly appreciated,” the Somali presidential adviser told VOA.
However, when asked if more airstrikes are on the way, US officials have remained vague.
“I think we’ll simply let the mission play out here,” Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon. “I won’t be able to tell you whether and how, or to what degree, activities like airstrikes will increase or diminish in the future.”
“Our forces’ objective is not one of combat operations. He went on to say, “Advise and assist.”