While some have interpreted Trump’s eleventh hour move as making good on his frequent talk and tweets about ending “endless wars,” experts say the order to remove approximately 800 U.S. military personnel from Somalia merely relocates troops to neighboring nations, unnecessarily complicates U.S. efforts, and potentially puts Somali civilians at increased risk. “It's not clear what the withdrawal of US forces means, because the Pentagon has suggested it plans to continue airstrikes in Somalia, and that's mostly how the US has been fighting,” Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA’s director of Security with Human Rights, told VICE World News. “Unfortunately, many people seem to be interpreting the withdrawal of US forces as an end to the US wars, in Somalia and elsewhere, but that's not the case. Neither the Trump administration nor the incoming Biden administration has indicated any intent to stop engaging in armed conflicts around the world, whether by drones or by piloted aircraft.”
While the chaos Trump causes in the United States has taken top billing, other experts caution that Trump’s orders directly impact countries around the world like Somalia, and say Somali civilians may pay a grave price.
In a September webinar, Anderson, the chief of U.S. commandos in Africa, argued that there was imperative for America to have a presence in Somalia since it “sits on strategic terrain” and that instability there could destabilize Ethiopia and Kenya. (SOCAFRICA failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on whether Anderson’s stance has changed in the wake of President Trump’s ordered withdrawal.)What is clear, however, is that AFRICOM had not planned for a drawdown, much less a withdrawal. This year, according to formerly secret 2020 AFRICOM planning documents obtained by VICE World News, the command was actively seeking to entrench and expand its footprint in Somalia. The internal files list the locations of six bases in the country, one more than the number in 2019. A new outpost at Dhusamareeb joined existing facilities at Baledogle, Bosasso, Galcayo, Kismayo, and Mogadishu. In September, AFRICOM spokesman John Manley told VICE World News that the new outpost was key to efforts alongside Somali forces geared toward “enhancing regional security.”The documents, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, note that AFRICOM had recommended to the Defense Department that several sites be recategorized as enduring locations, transforming the bases at Bosasso and Galcayo into “semi-permanent” outposts and recategorizing the bases at Baledogle and Mogadishu as “cooperative security locations,” the same designation as the $100 million U.S. drone base across the continent at Agadez, Niger. The files also show that while Somalia had overtaken Niger as the African nation with the most U.S. bases, Special Operations Command Africa was actively seeking to expand the U.S. footprint further through, the documents said, the “establishment of one or more new [contingency locations] in Somalia to support Somali National Security Force development.”
Until Trump’s withdrawal announcement, AFRICOM claimed that maintaining a troop presence and footprint on the ground was critical to its missions on the continent.
AFRICOM’s Manley refused to comment on how the withdrawal would affect bases, air strikes, and ground missions, replying to specific questions with generic talking points little different than the Pentagon’s 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,” he told VICE World News by email. “This action is not a withdrawal and an end to our efforts but a reposition to continue our efforts in East Africa.” Regardless of the euphemisms employed, the new policy is unlikely to dramatically change the U.S. counterterrorism program in Somalia, Elizabeth Shackelford, a former State Department Foreign Service officer who served in Somalia, told VICE World News. She characterized the withdrawal as “smoke and mirrors to make it look like Trump is keeping a promise to bring troops home,” but did warn that there could still be significant costs. “This will have a destabilizing effect on Somalia because it's rushed,” Shackelford said. “I expect there will be a gap while they readjust but find more costly and less efficient ways to do it without a footprint in-country—like enhancing the work of contractors or doing short-term deployments.”
According to formerly secret 2020 AFRICOM planning documents obtained by VICE World News, the command was actively seeking to entrench and expand its footprint in Somalia.
Experts told VICE World News that they expected civilians to be at continued risk from U.S. airstrikes. “Withdrawing U.S. troops may be a quick political win domestically, but the U.S. also needs to think about its impact on the people who live where these conflicts are happening, as well as the long-term impact on U.S. security of bombing, killing and maiming civilians in other countries,” said Eviatar. “The U.S. should accompany any troop withdrawal with a plan for better protecting civilians from any future air strikes, and also for acknowledging and compensating the civilian survivors of its past strikes.” This was echoed by Hassan: “Withdrawing ground troops will not mean an end to the war in Somalia,” he told VICE World News. “Most of the air strikes the United States has carried out in Somalia originated in other countries, like Kenya and Djibouti.” Late last month, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, its support ships, and 5,500 sailors arrived off the coast of Somalia to provide added firepower and increased protection during the U.S. troop withdrawal. “The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group brings incredible capability and allows us to maintain pressure against regional threats throughout Operation Octave Quartz," said Anderson, who is now overseeing the redeployment of troops as the commander of Joint Task Force-Quartz. Despite having made the case for a sustained U.S. presence in Somalia late last year, Anderson fell into line. “We will execute this mission swiftly, methodically, and with additional forces to protect both our partners and US forces,” he announced. At the same time, he issued threats that bolster outside experts’s speculation that the U.S. war will continue unabated. “Enemies should expect continued pressure,” he warned, “and swift retribution if they choose to attack.”
Experts warn that this reshuffling of personnel may put civilians at increased risk.