Trump's Withdrawal From Somalia Is Putting Troops 'at Risk,' General Says

An Army general is warning that former President Donald Trump's decision to pull hundreds of troops out of Somalia is hindering efforts to combat Islamic militants while putting U.S. military personnel in danger.

U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend on Tuesday told the Senate Armed Services Committee the reduced troop presence made has combatting the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab extremist group in East African country more dangerous and difficult. Townsend's statement raises questions whether President Joe Biden will reverse one of his predecessor's final national security decisions.

In December 2020, Trump ordered the withdrawal of 700 U.S. troops stationed in Somalia, where they had been training soldiers in the war-torn country and assisting with raids against Al-Shabab, an Islamic extremist group that has killed thousands.

While there would be a drawdown of troops, the Trump administration said at the time that U.S. policy in the region would remain unchanged. Troops would be moved to neighboring countries, including Kenya and Djibouti, where they would monitor Somalia and perform targeted counterterrorism operations.

Bomb Explosion in Mogadishu
U.S. Army General Stephen Townsend told the Senate Armed Services Committee that former President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from Somalia is a risk to military personnel. A general view of a destroyed building of Mocaasir primary and secondary school at a bomb explosion site in Mogadishu, Somalia, on November 25, 2021. Getty Images

The arrangement has been referred to as "commuting to work" by military officials. But Townsend, who heads United States Africa Command, said there are problems with the arrangement.

"My view is that our periodic engagement also referred to as 'commuting to work' has caused new challenges and risks for our troops," Townsend told the committee. "I believe my assessment is that it is not effective; it's not efficient, and it puts our troops at greater risk."

Townsend did not elaborate on inefficiencies or how troops were being put at risk.

Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe said that he opposed the troop withdrawal, and now Al-Shabab had grown in strength as a result. Referencing previous remarks by Townsend calling Al-Shabab "our primary enemy in Somalia," Inhofe asked the general if he had requested that troops be returned to the country.

"I have submitted advice to my chain of command, and my chain of command is still considering that advice," responded Townsend. "And I'd like to give them space to make that decision."

In his opening remarks to the committee, Townsend said that both Russia and China are seeking to expand their influence in Africa. He said that "Africa's challenges, opportunities and security interests are inseparable from our own."

Al-Shabab established a strong presence in southern Somalia in 2006 and has continued its violent insurgency despite setbacks by Somali and Ethiopian troops, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The group has targeted peace activists, aid workers, journalists and others. It has been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

The group has killed over 4,000 civilians since 2010, killing more than 500 in a truck bombing in 2017 in Mogadishu, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. Al-Shabab continues to pose a serious threat and the country's central government remains weak, according to the report.

Trump in 2017 authorized the first deployment of regular U.S. troops to Somalia since 1994 to help combat the group, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.