US President Donald Trump has ordered the withdrawal of nearly all US troops stationed in Somalia by January 15, according to the Pentagon.
The nearly 800 troops represent a small footprint but are seen as a crucial bulwark against African-based extremist groups, including al-Shabab.
In a statement, the Pentagon said the US is not “withdrawing or disengaging from Africa.”
“While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy,” the Pentagon said. “We will continue to degrade violent extremist organizations that could threaten our homeland while ensuring we maintain our strategic advantage in great power competition.”
The statement said some forces may be reassigned outside of East Africa. The remaining will be shifted to neighboring countries.
In recent months President Trump has issued similar orders to reduce US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He has long called for US troops to come home and has criticised US military interventions for being costly and ineffective.
The withdrawal order – which would see troops redeployed just days before Trump leaves office – reverses the policy of former US defence secretary Mark Esper, who was sacked last month and favoured maintaining the US presence in Somalia.
Some experts have warned that a US withdrawal could embolden militants in the Horn of Africa region.
Somalia has suffered decades of political instability but in recent years a peacekeeping force from the African Union along with US troops have reclaimed control of Mogadishu and other areas from al-Shabab – an al-Qaeda affiliate.
The group has fought for more than 10 years to impose a regime based on a strict version of Sharia law, and often attacks civilian and military targets, carrying out bombings and assassinations in the capital.
In 2017, the Pentagon announced it was sending dozens of troops to the African nation to train the Somali National Army. While the US military had a small number of counterterrorism forces that operated at times in Somalia before 2017, it marked the first time conventional forces would operate in the country since the U.S. pulled out in 1993.
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