US troops ‘back’ to Somalia —but did they ever leave?

Somalia

The Pentagon announced May 16 that a “small, persistent US military presence” of around 500 troops is to return to Somalia, to assist ongoing operations against the Shabaab insurgents. Media commentators widely portrayed this as a policy reversal, with some incorrectly stating that Present Trump “brought the troops home” from Somalia in 2020. However, the Pentagon press release implicitly acknowledges that the so-called “withdrawal” had been largely a fiction: “This decision was based on a request from [Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III] and included advice from senior commanders and, of course, concern for the safety of our troops who have incurred additional risk by deploying in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis for the past 16 months.”

The troops were never “brought home”; they were redeployed to neighboring Djibouti and Kenya, and sent back in to Somalia as mandated by contingency. The new press release said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby “told reporters the Department recognizes that al-Shabab has increased in strength and so poses a heightened threat. The existing model of US assistance moving into and out of the country as needed, he said, is inefficient.”

Trump had removed some 700 troops from Somalia. So the new force is somewhat reduced—but, by comparison, not exactly “small.”

Even if the announcement doesn’t mean very much, it is being met with some trepidation by human rights advocates. “US officials should be very clear on how their forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations,” said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “They will need to work closely with Somali and African Union authorities to avoid repeating past laws of war violations and promptly and appropriately respond to civilian loss.”

The US has been involved in military operations against al-Shabaab and predecessor insurgent groups since at least 2007. Since 2017, US air-strikes in Somalia have increased significantly.

Somalia’s new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, welcomed the decision to return US troops to the country. His election, one day before the Pentagon announcement, was looked to as resolving the country’s long political crisis. But he had been president during a previous crisis-wracked administration from 2012 to 2017, when he had faced widespread calls for his resignation. And he has not been elected by a popular vote (due to lack of effective government control over most of the country), but by the parliament. And the parliamentarians themselves are less elected than appointed by clan elders—and then only in those parts of the country where the government has enough control to hold some semblance of polls. As VoA states: “The distribution of power in Somalia is on a clan-based system locally known as the 4.5 system, where majority clans are allocated majority seats in parliament while the smaller clans, grouped together, get the remainder.”

Photo: Patrick Crosley/USMC via CommonDreams

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