Pentagon weighs proposal to send dozens of troops back to Somalia

The desire by some policymakers to return to Somalia offers a glimpse into the challenges the Pentagon could face.
The desire by some policymakers to return to Somalia offers a glimpse into the challenges the Pentagon could face.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Pentagon is developing a proposal to send dozens of Special Forces trainers back to Somalia to help local forces combat al-Shabab, the terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda - a step that would partly reverse former president Donald Trump's abrupt pull-out of nearly all 700 American troops from the country in January.

Mr Trump's order to withdraw ground forces from Somalia underscored his desire to end long-running military engagements against Islamist insurgencies in dysfunctional states in Africa and the Middle East, a grinding mission of low-intensity warfare that has spread since the Sept 11, 2001, attacks.

The desire by some military policymakers to return to Somalia offers a glimpse into the challenges the Pentagon could face in advising Afghan forces from a distance after carrying out President Joe Biden's order to withdraw the last 3,500 American troops from Afghanistan, especially if the Taleban then make serious gains there.

The proposal has not yet been presented to Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, officials said, and it is not clear whether Mr Biden would approve such a plan.

Among other challenges, the idea is also running into an unresolved policy debate over developing new rules for counter-terrorism "direct action".

The Biden administration placed new limits on such strikes when it took office on Jan 20, to give it time to develop a permanent policy. Where the Trump administration set broad rules for strikes in particular countries and delegated authority to commanders in the field about when to carry one out, proposals for strikes are now routed through the White House.

The White House has since rejected a handful of requests by the military's Africa Command to carry out drone strikes against al-Shabab targets in Somalia because they did not meet the new standards, three American officials said.

It tentatively approved other proposed operations, but conditions on the ground have not yet come together in a way that would allow them to proceed, they said.

As a result, nearly five months have passed since the United States has carried out any air strikes in Somalia.

"Al-Shabab has had more freedom to manoeuvre," said Major-General Dagvin Anderson, who commands American Special Operations forces in Africa. In recent Senate testimony, Maj-Gen Anderson called al-Shabab "the largest, wealthiest and most violent al-Qaeda-associated group in the world".