The U.S. military plans to scale back its role in Somalia and curtail airstrikes against al-Shabab insurgents after having taken out many of the group’s senior operatives, two senior U.S. officials told NBC News, the latest signal the Trump administration is looking to cut the number of troops deployed around the world.
The move reflects an assessment by the administration that while the Shabab insurgency remains a threat to the Somali government and neighboring countries, it does not pose a direct danger to the U.S., current and former officials said. And it follows President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement last month that he had ordered U.S. forces out of Syria and asked for plans to be drawn up for a possible drawdown in Afghanistan.
Former officials and counterterrorism experts say if the Trump administration presses ahead with its plans it could create a dangerous opening for al Qaeda, ISIS and other extremists to carve out sanctuaries and launch terrorist attacks on U.S. and Western targets.
In a statement, Defense Department spokesperson Navy Cmdr. Candice Tresch said, “There have been no recent policy changes regarding U.S. operations in Somalia. We continue to support the Federal Government of Somalia’s efforts to degrade al Shabab.”
The planned change also illustrates a broader strategic shift by the U.S. military to reduce forces devoted to counterterrorism operations in Africa and focus more on traditional adversaries such as Russia and China.
At the start of his term, Trump initially deployed additional troops to Somalia and gave commanders more latitude to call in air power, opening the way for an increase in bombing raids against Shabab militants waging war against the Somali government.
But under guidance issued by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned last month, the military “is narrowing its mission a bit” in Somalia, one senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told NBC News.