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U.S. begins withdrawing troops from Somalia, but regional hurdles remain

The U.S. military began drawing down this week in Somalia as part of President Trump’s vow to reduce overseas deployments. Some 700 U.S. troops have been training Somali forces to defend their country against the extremist group al-Shabab. But they will now have to conduct that mission from elsewhere, raising fears among some Somalis that the move will leave them vulnerable. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This week, the U.S. military began drawing down in Somalia as part of President Trump's vow to reduce overseas deployments.

    Some 700 U.S. troops have been training Somali forces. But now they will have to do that mission from elsewhere.

    And, as Nick Schifrin reports, some Somalis fear that that will leave them vulnerable.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Along Africa's east coast, Somali forces are learning to lead the fight. Their trainers are American, equipping them to defend their own country from Al-Shabaab.

    Since the early 2000s, al-Qaida-linked Shabaab, or Youth, has killed thousands across Somalia and sought to create an Islamist government. And they have also attacked over the border in Kenya, including killing two U.S. soldiers earlier this year on Manda Bay Base, as seen in these propaganda photos.

  • Woman:

    This morning, we will recognize the soldiers of the Danab Special Forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Somali troops trained by U.S. special operations forces were Somalia's own elite unit, the Danab.

  • Col. Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh:

    The U.S., everybody knows their capabilities in the military, and they bring really the best to train and advise our forces. And it has been very beneficial.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thirty-seven-year-old Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh used to command the Danab. He says he grew close to his U.S. officers through training, mentoring, and advising.

  • Col. Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh:

    You build a bond. So, working together is — has been very beneficial for the Somali forces.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But U.S. Special Operations forces are now leaving. The U.S. military released photos of a carrier strike group and its 5,500 sailors off the coast of Somalia, protecting some 700 U.S. troops as they withdraw to neighboring countries and consolidate onto U.S. bases.

    Ending the train-and-equip program is self-defeating, says Abdullahi.

  • Col. Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh:

    It's coming abrupt, and it comes very sudden and without any warning.

    Al-Shabaab pledged that they will keep the pressure on the Americans. This decision will embolden them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the decision could weaken the three-year-old U.S.-allied Somali government, because it precedes upcoming elections, says Horn of Africa analyst Omar Mahmood.

  • Omar Mahmood:

    Pulling out troops in such a way, especially such a rushed way, can create quite a vacuum.

    Al-Shabaab very much also watches these developments, uses them in their propaganda, so would very much present this as a victory on their part, that they were able to drive out U.S. troops from Somalia.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But critics of the Somalia mission argue U.S. troops are not the solution to solving the civil war and a new strategy was overdue.

  • Salih Booker:

    The troop withdrawal could represent the beginning of a new policy, a policy aimed at achieving some kind of political reconciliation and peace negotiations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Salih Booker is the president of the Center for International Policy, an independent research center.

    He says some Al-Shabaab fighters have local grievances, such as government corruption, others have regional Islamist goals, and the conflict has no military solution.

  • Salih Booker:

    The military victory is out of the reach of the federal government. It's out of the reach of the U.S. government. But it's also unlikely that Al-Shabaab can achieve a decisive military victory.

    And, therefore, it's time to change the strategic goal to one of political reconciliation and peace negotiations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Booker argues the U.S. military's Africa Command, or AFRICOM, has for years overstated the Al-Shabaab threat.

  • Salih Booker:

    There is not any clear indication that Al-Shabaab has attempted to organize any international terrorist activities targeting U.S. assets or the so-called U.S. homeland.

    AFRICOM is engaged in threat inflation in order to justify their continuing focus on a misguided strategic goal of defeating Al-Shabaab militarily.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the U.S. military argues the counterterror mission inside Somalia is essential and will carry on.

    The U.S. can continue to conduct airstrikes in Somalia from neighboring Djibouti. From 2007 to 2015, the Bush and Obama administrations acknowledged launching 21 airstrikes in Somalia. In 2016 alone, the Obama administration launched 19. The Trump administration accelerated that trend, launching in four years nearly 200 airstrikes from drones.

  • Salih Booker:

    There's no evidence that this strategy has achieved the strategic objective, and, all the opposite, it's raised enormous questions about the legality of this kind of targeting through airstrikes. It's raised questions about the number of civilian casualties.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Many Somalis argue the civilian death from U.S. airstrikes is underreported.

    Back in 2017, Halima Mohamed Afrah said the U.S. had the wrong targets.

  • Halima Mohamed Afrah (through translator):

    The U.S. forces killed my first born son in 1992. And last Friday, they killed 10 innocent farmers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The current mission began in 2017, the first regular deployment to Somalia in decades. That effort ended in the 1993 battle that became known as Black Hawk Down. Eighteen U.S. soldiers died.

    Today, Abdullahi fears the Danab could be exploited by Somali politicians to do personal bidding, and the relationships the U.S. troop presence created will be lost.

  • Col. Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh:

    By having the U.S. forces based across Somalia, they were really the faces you saw. And if somebody have a grievance, they could come to them to talk to them. And now that relationship will not exist anymore.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The withdrawal also comes at a fragile time regionally. In neighboring Ethiopia, battles between the national government and a rebellious regional government led to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

  • Salih Booker:

    The region is a tinderbox. It could easily go up into flames further than it already is.

    So, the United States should focus not so much on weapons and violence as its ability to project power to solve problems in the region, but on relationships between nations, between peoples. This is a strength the United States has that it is simply not using that it needs to use.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. drawdown from Somalia will conclude before president-elect Biden takes office, but he will inherit the violent regional challenges. And those aren't going away.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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