The US will send up to 500 soldiers back on full-time deployment to Somalia, to train the country’s army to combat the increasing threat posed by al-Shabaab militants.
The White House insisted that the move, deepening the US long-term military commitment in an intractable foreign conflict, did not contradict Joe Biden’s overall policy of disengaging from “forever wars”, which underlay the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The decision does not affect overall deployments in the region, officials said on Monday, but replaces a rotating deployment with a “persistent” presence – longer tours by the same special forces soldiers. They argued the deployment should not be called permanent, as that implied the soldiers would be there forever.
The move marks a reversal of Donald Trump’s abrupt decision, in the last weeks of his presidency, to withdraw 750 US troops who had been stationed in Somalia until then. A senior administration official called Trump’s decision “irrational”.
“It was an abrupt and sudden transition to a rotational presence,” the official said. “Since then, al-Shabaab, the terrorist group in Somalia that is al-Qaida’s largest, wealthiest and deadliest affiliate, has unfortunately only grown stronger. It has increased the tempo of its attacks, including against US personnel.”
The official said that having a rotational presence had increased the security risks to US troops as they moved in and out of the country, and had disrupted the training of Somali forces by constantly changing the US trainers.
On Monday, the United Nations, the African Union, the EU and diplomats congratulated Mohamud and expressed hopes that his election would enable political reconciliation.
“This is someone with whom we are familiar given that he served as president 2012 to 2017,” the senior US official said. “Maybe even more importantly, I would say that across Somali leadership there is consistency in terms of support for collaboration on counter-terrorism.”
The official suggested the decision had taken time because of Biden’s caution over sending US troops into a conflict zone.
“He takes seriously his obligation to ask tough questions and to make sure he understands the full ramifications – the risks as well as the potential benefits,” the official said. “Once he worked through that process, once he had his questions answered, he was ultimately comfortable approving this proposal from the secretary of defence.”