US President Joe Biden has authorised the redeployment of several hundred American troops back to Somalia, officials said on Monday, 17 months after Donald Trump ordered their withdrawal.
Before Mr Trump's withdrawal in December 2020, the US had about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab insurgency.
“President Biden has approved a request from the Department of Defence to reposition US forces in East Africa in order to re-establish a small, persistent US military presence in Somalia,” a senior administration official told reporters on Monday.
“This will not change the scope of the mission that our special operators have conducted in Somalia as they have gone in and out during periodic engagements,” said the official.
The official would not specify how many troops would be deployed but said it would be fewer than 500 and added that the mission would not “significantly change” the Pentagon's overall posture and resources in East Africa.
The official cited Al Shabab's increased attacks in the region, including an attack in Manda Bay, Kenya, in 2020 that killed three Americans.
Experts at the time criticised Mr Trump’s withdrawal from Somalia as political, short-sighted and lacking strategy.
Al Shabab is seeking to topple the government and establish its own rule in Somalia based on its strict interpretation of Sharia.
The group frequently carries out bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of its war against the central government.
The group controls a significant amount of territory mostly located in southern Somalia and has thrived in part due to the country's fractious and dysfunctional politics.
“Al Shabab is as successful as it is because the government, the state of Somalia, has not focused its fight on Al Shabab,” said Sarah Harrison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group whose work focuses in part on US military policy in Africa.
Somalia has endured conflict and clan battles with no strong central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The government has little control beyond the capital and the African Union contingent patrols an Iraq-style “Green Zone”.
While the US did not have troops in Somalia since Mr Trump ordered their withdrawal, the military has occasionally carried out strikes in the country and has stationed troops in nearby countries.
Mr Biden's decision to redeploy troops comes nearly a year after he ended the war in Afghanistan but some analysts view the conflict with Al Shabab as part of the same broader war on terror.
“Ending the forever war is not just ending the war in Afghanistan,” Ms Harrison said.
“It's ending the global war on terror and the move that we've now seen of putting more US troops back in Somalia is not going to lead to an end, it's just going to continue that war, especially when there is a lack of effective efforts to address the systemic issues driving the conflict.”