President Donald Trump has ordered nearly all American troops to withdraw from Somalia, US officials said on Friday.
It is part of a global pullback by the Republican president before he leaves office next month. US forces are due to be withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The US has about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency. The mission has received little attention in the United States, but has been considered a cornerstone of the Pentagon’s global efforts to combat al Qaeda.
In a statement, the Pentagon sought to play down the implications of a withdrawal that experts have said could undermine security in Somalia.
“While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy,” the Pentagon said.
“The U.S. will retain the capability to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations in Somalia, and collect early warnings and indicators regarding threats to the homeland.”
The United States already pulled out of Somalia’s cities of Bossaso and Galkayo earlier this year. As of last month, U.S. troops were still in the southern port city of Kismayo, Baledogle airbase in the Lower Shabelle region, and in the capital Mogadishu.
A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said nearly all U.S. forces would leave Somalia, although some would remain in Mogadishu.
The Pentagon statement, which was unsigned, said an unspecified number of forces in Somalia would be moved to neighboring countries, allowing them to carry out cross-border operations. Others would be reassigned outside East Africa.
A congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the withdrawal comes at a difficult time for Somalia, ahead of both parliamentary and presidential elections, and will present an early dilemma for President-elect Joe Biden.
Somalia has been riven by civil war since the early 1990s, but over the past decade an African Union-backed peacekeeping force and U.S. troops have clawed back control of Mogadishu and large swathes of the country from al Shabaab.