In Somalia, US troop withdrawal is seen as badly timed

Nairobi, Kenya: Somalis fear a US decision to withdraw troops from their country will be seen as a victory for Al uQaida-linked militants who have wreaked havoc there for years, and sow the potential for further chaos at an especially delicate moment for Somalia and the region.

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Somali presidential elections are scheduled in just two months; war is erupting in neighbouring Ethiopia; and the militants, from Al Shabab, are still strong despite years of US-led raids and drone strikes.

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The timing of Friday’s Pentagon announcement, some Somalis say, is terrible.

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“The fight against global terrorism is still ongoing, and we must still win the battle for peace and security to prevail,” said Ayub Ismail Yusuf, a Somali senator, who called the US decision “untimely” on Twitter. “We must not give up on our successes.”

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At Mogadishu University, Abdullahi, a 23-year-old political science student, said he feared Al Shabab will now be able to “strike without fear” in the capital.

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“Now their leaders can move easily from place to place with little threat,” he added, asking that his full name be withheld to protect against possible reprisals. He lives near the charred remains of an ice cream parlour blitzed by an Al Shabab suicide bomber November 27, an attack that killed seven people.

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The Pentagon said it will “reposition” some of the estimated 700 US troops in Somalia to other parts of East Africa – likely Kenya and Djibouti – and continue to carry out raids against Al Shabab and a smaller cluster of Daesh fighters in northern Somalia from bases in neighbouring countries.

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Drone strikes, which have killed numerous senior and midlevel Al Shabab commanders as well as dozens of civilians, will continue.

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President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed of Somalia did not immediately react to the US decision, announced late Friday as part of President Donald Trump’s drive to end what he calls America’s endless wars before leaving office January 20. Whether fears over the withdrawal, which is expected by mid-January, are fully merited is not yet clear.

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What seems certain, though, is that the brunt of the changes will be borne by Danab, an elite Somali force that the US military took under its wing after its formation in 2013. Since then, US soldiers have trained and armed the Somali commandos, whose numbers have grown to about 1,000, and have often accompanied them on raids against Al Shabab.

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Now Danab will be largely on its own.

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Col. Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who commanded Danab between 2016 and 2019, said he expected the United States to continue funding and arming the elite force. But the crucial US “advise-and-assist” role – Americans helping Somali officers plan raids and accompanying them into firefights – will not be easily replaced, he said.

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“You can launch and stage operations from countries like Djibouti and Kenya, but it’s not the same as being in the country,” Sheikh said. “You can’t train a force remotely.”

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Even with years of US support, Somalia has been able to only partially blunt Al Shabab’s potency.

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The group controls swaths of southern Somalia, where its fighters ambush and bomb Somalia soldiers and African Union peacekeepers. A recent US government report noted that Al Shabab was involved in 440 violent events in Somalia between July and September – the highest number in two years.

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US and Somali pressure has succeeded, though, in stemming sophisticated, large-scale attacks in Mogadishu, said Omar Mahmood, a Somalia analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict research organisation.

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The Somalis were supposed to be standing on their own feet in the coming year. An international plan hashed out in 2017 called for Somali security forces to be operating independently by 2021. That will not happen.

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Danab, the main counterterrorism strike force, still relies heavily on U.S. support and has reached only about one-third of its planned size.

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The US withdrawal “could have a pretty big impact” Mahmood said. “The American advisory role is invaluable for Danab. This raises concerns it can continue to develop.”

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Danab is not the main pillar of Somali security. The government relies heavily on a 19,000-strong force of African Union peacekeepers – although that, too, has been buffeted by uncertainty because of the erupting civil conflict in Ethiopia, which contributes about 4,000 troops.

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The US pullout from Somalia may have been inevitable. President-elect Joe Biden has also committed to withdrawing US troops from “forever wars” – open-ended counterterrorism missions that proliferated after 2001.

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But Somalia experts warned that Trump’s decision to pull the plug now, as Somalia faces parliamentary elections this month and a presidential vote in February, was a recipe for chaos and maximum damage.

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“It’s typical of the Trump administration’s incoherent policy toward Somalia,” said Matt Bryden, a strategic adviser at Sahan Research, a group that specializes in the Horn of Africa. “This is an incomprehensible decision at a time when governments are likely to change in both Somalia and the US. It would have made more sense to wait a few months.”

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Pentagon assurances that the US will continue to hit Al Shabab from bases outside the country, he said, “look like a brave attempt to put lipstick on a pig.”

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But for the Danab force, the US withdrawal will constitute a “wake-up call,” said Sheikh, its former commander. “They realise they can’t rely on outside help anymore.”

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It may also leave the force more prone to political interference, not to mention the corruption that has blighted other Somali security units. And the US departure may deal a blow to morale, raising questions about America’s commitment to their fight.

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“A bit of trust will be lost,” Sheikh said. “And it will be really hard to get it back.”

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