The force adjustment only partly addresses Trump’s commitment to end U.S. involvement in foreign wars, as thousands of U.S. troops remain engaged in conflicts around the globe in the final days of his presidency. The troops will leave Somali soil but will continue to execute “cross-border operations,” the Pentagon said, indicating that U.S. missions will not halt there.
U.S. forces in Somalia and Kenya, including many Special Operations troops, have focused on training local forces to conduct raids and capture leaders of al-Shabab, a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda that has an expansive and a deadly presence in the region. The group has between 5,000 and 10,000 fighters, defense officials have said.
The United States also conducts airstrike and surveillance missions from airstrips in the region. In January, a U.S. soldier and two American contractors were killed by al-Shabab militants in a brazen predawn attack on an air base on the Kenyan coast. About 200 U.S. troops and 100 contractors were in Kenya at the beginning of the year.
The Pentagon sought to reassure allies in the region over the changes.
“The U.S. military is not withdrawing from East Africa,” Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. Africa Command, said in a statement. “Our presence in Somalia will decrease significantly but U.S. forces will remain in the region and our tasks and commitment to partners remain unchanged.”
It is not clear what the shift means for the larger U.S. presence in Somalia, including intelligence operations. A CIA officer was killed there last month, CNN reported.
While al-Shabab’s grip over Somalia has waned since its inception in 2006, militants there have bedeviled troops and civilians on their mission to capture territory and impose harsh Islamic law. A car bomb paired with an assault by gunmen on a Mogadishu hotel killed 11 in August. The group also launches occasional terrorist attacks in Kenya.
The decision to relocate forces from Somalia came soon after a Defense Department Inspector General report found that militants in Somalia are resilient in the face of U.S. operations, with poor marks for the Somali military.
“Despite many years of sustained Somali, U.S., and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded: al-Shabaab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests,” the report found.
Some U.S. service members in Somalia may also shift to neighboring Djibouti, home to the only permanent U.S. base on the continent.
The U.S. military announced last month that it would reduce troop levels from about 5,000 to 2,500 in Afghanistan and from about 3,000 to 2,500 in Iraq by Jan. 15.
Acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller said in announcing those cuts that the military would “execute this repositioning in a way that protects our fighting men and women, our partners in the intelligence community, our diplomatic corps and our superb allies.”
Miller visited Somalia in late November, a first for a Pentagon chief.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.