By Idrees Ali and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden has authorized the redeployment of fewer than 500 American troops into Somalia, U.S. officials said on Monday, after Donald Trump ordered their withdrawal during his presidency.
Prior to Trump’s withdrawal, the United States had about 700 troops in Somalia focused on helping local forces defeat the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency.
“This is a repositioning of forces already in theater who have traveled in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. The exact number of troops was not mentioned at the briefing.
A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Biden had approved the request from U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to “enable a more effective fight against al Shabaab.”
The Pentagon said the troops would not be directly fighting in combat operations, but working to train, advise and equip Somali forces.
“Secretary’s (Austin’s) view was that the episodic engagement model was inefficient and increasingly unsustainable,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.
The revamped troop presence will include fewer than 500 U.S. troops, another U.S. official said.
Al Shabaab is seeking to topple the government and establish its own rule in Somalia based on its strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.
The insurgent group frequently carries out bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of its war against the Horn of Africa country’s central government.
“It’s good news to have U.S. troops on the ground and counterterrorism efforts can be reinitiated,” said Colonel Ahmed Sheikh, the former commander of Somalia’s elite Danab Special Forces unit, trained by U.S. troops.
“This will be a huge boost for the new president – he has a big task ahead,” he added.
Former Somali leader Hassan Sheikh Mohamud won the presidency again in voting by parliamentarians on Sunday.
Somalia has endured conflict and clan battles with no strong central government since the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. The government has little control beyond the capital and the African Union contingent guards in an Iraq-style “Green Zone.”
While the United States did not have troops in Somalia since Trump ordered their withdrawal in December 2020, the military has occasionally carried out strikes in the country and has had troops in nearby countries.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Idrees Ali in WashingtonAdditional rerpoting by Katharine Houreld and Jeff Mason Editing by Bill Berkrot and Matthew Lewis)