The Trump administration has ordered the withdrawal of most US troops from Somalia, a critical front in the fight against Al Qaeda and affiliated groups.
In a statement, the Pentagon said the US is repositioning its “presence and assets out of Somalia.”
“The President of the United States has ordered the Department of Defence and the United States Africa Command to reposition the majority of personnel and assets out of Somalia by early 2021,” the statement said.
The Pentagon reiterated its commitment “to our African partners and enduring support through a whole-of-government approach”, but noted that “some forces may be reassigned outside of East Africa.”
The US has around 700 troops in the country, a presence that has been maintained for over 13 years and is seen as critical to countering terrorist organisations. The forces also train an elite commando Somali unity to fight Al Qaeda and Al Shabab.
Additionally, China has expanded its influence in Somalia, investing in infrastructure plans and projects in agriculture, fishery and health.
Experts see Mr Trump’s withdrawal from Somalia as political, short-sighted and lacking strategy. “The US has a small footprint countering Al Shabab, the Al Qaeda affiliate most set on developing capabilities to attack, with no mission creep,” tweeted Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute.
Emily Estelle, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, sees the decision as potentially taking pressure off Al Shabab.
"The US deployment is keeping pressure on Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate that is determined to conduct international terror attacks," Ms Estelle told The National. She described the US mission in Somalia as "small and focused and particularly important at a time of great instability in Somalia and East Africa broadly."
Regarding the timing, Ms Estelle said it is tied to the Trump administration ending, but it is also part of the Pentagon’s re-evaluation of US posture in Africa. “The US deployment in the sub-Sahara, which supports a French counter-terrorism mission, is also being reviewed,” she added.
Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council described the move as “non-strategic”, especially with the rising threat from Al Shabab.
"It risks undoing whatever progress we have achieved in stabilising Somalia over the past decade or more and cedes ground to a terrorist force there that has attacked American nationals and interests in Kenya," Mr Hudson told The National.
“Coming at the same time that Ethiopia has already withdrawn many of its non-AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) troops, which will only further weaken the central government’s authority in advance of federal elections early next year,” he added. Mr Hudson said the move more broadly put US interests in the Horn of Africa at risk.
According to The New York Times, US forces have trained and supported an elite 850-soldier Somali unit to fight Al Shabab and disrupt terror activities. The US designated Al Shabab as a foreign terrorist organisation in 2008 and has since carried out drone attacks against the group.
The announcement follows major changes that Mr Trump made at the Pentagon the past month, firing Defence Secretary Mark Esper and installing Acting Defence Secretary Chris Miller, who has now ordered partial withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.
Mr Trump promised during his campaign in 2016 to bring troops home. With 47 days left in office, these decisions appear to target his base, as he flirts with another run in 2024. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to review the US defence posture after he takes office on January 20.