President Biden has approved an order that authorizes hundreds of Special Operations personnel to be redeployed to Somalia. The order reverses a previous decision made by the Trump administration, which saw around 700 ground troops returning home from the country.

The move will see less than 500 soldiers back on full deployment in Somalia. There, the troops will be tasked to train and advise partner forces, mostly from the Somalian government. The decision was suggested to President Biden by the Pentagon over the growing threat from Al-Shabaab, a militant group in the country,

“This decision was based on a request from Secretary Austin and included advice from senior commanders and, of course, concern for the safety of our troops who have incurred additional risk by deploying in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis for the past 16 months,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in a press briefing.

Kirby emphasized that US forces deployed in Somalia will not now or ever be used to engage in direct combat operations. He insisted that the troops are there only to provide guidance and to give US partners “the tools that they need to disrupt, degrade and monitor Al-Shabaab.”

The Pentagon spokesperson also noted that the decision would not affect the current deployment of US troops in the region. Rather, it simply replaces the rotating deployment of forces with a “persistent” presence. It will, however, imply longer tours for the soldiers.

“Shifting to a persistent presence will not change the mission, and it will not imply substantial changes in resources… And we’re engaging partners in the region, including the Somali government, to determine the best way forward, “Kirby said.

Members of the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group Al Shabaab stand after giving themselves up to forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Garsale, approximately 10km from the town of Jowhar, 80km north of the capital Mogadishu, 22 September 2012 (AMISOM Public Information, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A senior administration official said that the Trump administration’s decision to shift to rotational deployment, done during his last weeks of presidency, proved to be inefficient.

“It was an abrupt and sudden transition to a rotational presence,” the official said. “Since then, al-Shabaab, the terrorist group in Somalia that is al-Qaida’s largest, wealthiest and deadliest affiliate, has unfortunately only grown stronger. It has increased the tempo of its attacks, including against US personnel.”

The official added that adopting a rotational presence had put US forces at greater security risk as they were forced to constantly move in and out of the country. This also disrupted the training of Somali fighters, who were constantly changing US trainers.

Head of US Africa Command Army General Stephen Townsend warned earlier this year that US withdrawal from Somalia had dismembered the military’s ability to react and suppress threats in the region. He said doing “over the horizon” strikes launched from a nearby base in Djibouti was like “commuting to work.”

National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson acknowledged the decision as the better option, saying it would allow for a “more effective fight against Al-Shabaab.”

“The decision to reintroduce a persistent presence was made to maximize the safety and effectiveness of our forces and enable them to provide more efficient support to our partners,” Watson said.

In addition to redeployment, Biden has approved a Pentagon request that provides the department standing authority to pursue a dozen suspected high-ranking officials of Al-Shabaab. Together with the decision, inside sources say Biden intends to revive an open-ended American counterterrorism strategy that has yielded drawn-out wars spanning three administrations.

Ironically, the move comes in contrast to the administration’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan, with Biden saying that “it is time to end the forever war.” However, the White House insisted that the decision was not a contradiction to the withdrawal from Kabul, which was determined to be disastrous by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It was determined that some 9,000 Americans were abandoned in Afghanistan during the pull-out. It was also determined last April by the Department of Defense that $7 billion in weapons, aircraft, and other military equipment were left in Afghanistan and were now being used by the Taliban.

Not all agree with Biden’s decision. Senior analyst at the International Crisis Group Sarah Harrison criticized the move claiming that the US has been in operation inside Somalia for 15 years with no success, adding that US presence might have even prolonged the conflict.

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“Sending in more US troops and honing in on a small number of senior Al-Shabaab leadership is narrow in its aims and by definition cannot end the broader military fight absent more concerted and effective diplomatic and political efforts by the United States and others,” she said.

The Al-Shabaab

The Al-Shabaab is an Islamic insurgent group founded in the early 2000s with the intent to establish an independent Islamic state in Somalia.

A senior commanding officer of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) shakes hands with a commander of the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group Al Shabaab after more than 200 fighters gave themselves up to AMISOM forces of the in Garsale, approximately 10km from the town of Jowhar, 80km north of the capital Mogadishu 22 September 2012 (AMISOM Public Information, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Intelligence reports state that the group has around 5,000 to 10,000 members and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in 2012. With its numbers, Al-Shabaab is capable of carrying out massive attacks throughout Somalia and the surrounding countries.

The insurgency has withstood a long-running offensive by the African Union and US efforts to disrupt the group’s operations. Recent years have seen an increase in the number of attacks by the groups, particularly after the US withdrew from Somalia.