US troops 'back' to Somalia —but did they ever leave?

The Pentagon announced May 16 that a "small, persistent US military presence" of around 500 troops is to return to Somalia, to assist ongoing operations against the Shabaab insurgents. Media commentators widely portrayed this as a policy reversal, with some incorrectly stating that Present Trump "brought the troops home" from Somalia in 2020. However, the Pentagon press release implicitly acknowledges that the so-called "withdrawal" had been largely a fiction: "This decision was based on a request from [Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III] 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."

The troops were never "brought home"; they were redeployed to neighboring Djibouti and Kenya, and sent back in to Somalia as mandated by contingency. The new press release said Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby "told reporters the Department recognizes that al-Shabab has increased in strength and so poses a heightened threat. The existing model of US assistance moving into and out of the country as needed, he said, is inefficient."

Trump had removed some 700 troops from Somalia. So the new force is somewhat reduced—but, by comparison, not exactly "small."

Even if the announcement doesn't mean very much, it is being met with some trepidation by human rights advocates. "US officials should be very clear on how their forces will avoid harming Somali civilians during military operations," said Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "They will need to work closely with Somali and African Union authorities to avoid repeating past laws of war violations and promptly and appropriately respond to civilian loss."

The US has been involved in military operations against al-Shabaab and predecessor insurgent groups since at least 2007. Since 2017, US air-strikes in Somalia have increased significantly.

Somalia's new president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, welcomed the decision to return US troops to the country. His election, one day before the Pentagon announcement, was looked to as resolving the country's long political crisis. But he had been president during a previous crisis-wracked administration from 2012 to 2017, when he had faced widespread calls for his resignation. And he has not been elected by a popular vote (due to lack of effective government control over most of the country), but by the parliament. And the parliamentarians themselves are less elected than appointed by clan elders—and then only in those parts of the country where the government has enough control to hold some semblance of polls. As VoA states: "The distribution of power in Somalia is on a clan-based system locally known as the 4.5 system, where majority clans are allocated majority seats in parliament while the smaller clans, grouped together, get the remainder."

Somalia president urges global community to help avert famine

Somalia's newly-elected president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, used his inauguration speech on June 9 to appeal to the diaspora and international community to help stave off the famine that threatens his drought-stricken country. (AFP)

Somalia names former al-Shabab spokesman as religion minister

Somalia's Prime Minister Hamza Abdi Barre has named the country's new cabinet, choosing former al-Shabab spokesperson Muktar Robow as a minister—a move that could either help strengthen the fight against the insurgency or provoke clan clashes.

In televised remarks, Barre said Robow, who had a $5 US bounty on his head before he split from al-Shabab in 2013, is to serve as the minister in charge of religion. (Al Jazeera)

Somali forces end al-Shabab siege in Mogadishu

Somali forces ended a 30-hour siege of a hotel in the capital that left at least 10 dead. The Mogadishu attack began when al-Shabab fighter unleashed a gun-and-bomb assault on the popular Hayat Hotel on Aug. 19. (Al Jazeera)

Five days earlier, the US carried out air-strikes on Shabab positions in Teedaan, in support of Somali military forces. The Pentagon said 13 militants were killed in the strikes. (CNN)