The U.S. announced a plan over the weekend to begin withdrawing the estimated 800 American troops from Somalia by early January, but it came with a warning to the al-Shabaab insurgent group: "They should not test us."
"We remain committed to helping our African partners build a more secure future," Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), said in a statement Saturday. "We also remain capable of striking al-Shabaab at the time and place of our choosing -- they should not test us."
Townsend did not call the exit of U.S. troops from Somalia a withdrawal, but rather the "directed re-positioning" of forces to other bases in East Africa, most likely to neighboring Kenya.
The continuing threat from al-Shabaab was evidenced a day before Townsend's announcement in a suicide attack in the central Somali town of Galkayo, which killed at least 10. Among those killed in the attack was Col. Mukhtar Abdi Aden, regional commander of Danab, the main Somali military unit trained by the U.S.
The attack came shortly before the arrival in Galkayo of Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble to attend a political rally in a football stadium, according to Voice of America.
On orders of President Donald Trump, the Pentagon announced Dec. 4 that the "majority" of U.S. troops in Somalia, who had been on a counter-terror and train, advise and assist mission, would leave the Horn of Africa country.
"While a change in force posture, this action is not a change in U.S. policy," the Defense Department said in the unattributed statement. "We will continue to degrade violent extremist organizations that could threaten our homeland while ensuring we maintain our strategic advantage in great power competition [against the growing influence of China and Russia in Africa.]"
China has established its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, about a mile from AFRICOM's main base in East Africa. Russia earlier this month announced an agreement with Sudan to establish a naval base at Port Sudan.
The announcement of the Somalia withdrawal followed Trump's orders to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500, and in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500, by Jan. 15.
The drawdown in Somalia also comes with AFRICOM not knowing where its headquarters will be in the coming year.
In June, Trump ordered the withdrawal of 9,500 troops from Germany, and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper later increased the number to about 12,000. As part of the plan, AFRICOM was to move its headquarters out of Stuttgart, Germany, but the next location was not designated.
President-elect Joe Biden will have the authority to alter or reverse Trump's Germany troop withdrawal order with an executive order of his own once he takes office Jan. 20, but it is unclear whether he will do so.
In the announcement Saturday, Townsend said the withdrawal from Somalia will be called Operation Octave Quartz and be led by Joint Task Force-Quartz commanded by Air Force Maj. Gen. Dagvin Anderson, head of Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAF).
"I have just returned from visiting [Anderson] at his forward headquarters in East Africa where I met with Dag and his commanders to review their posture and plans. JTF-Quartz is ready to go," Townsend said.
At an American Enterprise Institute forum in September, Anderson gave a detailed account of the daunting challenges ahead for SOCAF and AFRICOM.
He warned of the resilience of al-Qaida-linked al-Shabaab and other violent extremist organizations with avowed allegiance to the Islamic State across the Sahel in East and West Africa.
One of the difficulties in making the case for a continued U.S. military presence is in defining "why does Africa matter and explaining why do we care," Anderson said. "I think why we pay attention to this is because al-Qaida and Islamic State have both stated that they intend to attack and undermine the United States, whether that's directly to the homeland or it's U.S. interests abroad," he said.
The Islamic State lost much of its legitimacy after its defeats in Iraq and Syria, Anderson said. "And so what they're looking to do is, where do they find that legitimacy, where do they rebuild, and Africa provides them those opportunities," he said. "So we see them expanding out into the West -- Islamic State Grand Sahara in the Mali region. We see them in Islamic State West Africa, in northeastern Nigeria.
"But then, more disturbing to me," Anderson added, "[is that] we're seeing them as they expand down the eastern coast, the Swahili coast of Africa. And so we see them established in Somalia. We see them going down into Mozambique, in Tanzania. And we see that these affiliates continue to expand and leverage each other."
In Somalia, al-Shabaab has been largely contained to the lower Juba Valley, about 200 miles south of Mogadishu, he said.
The result has been the creation of "a bit of a de facto safe haven for them in that it's very difficult to get into that terrain and very difficult to get in there because of clan makeup, because of terrain itself, and just because of how they've kind of consolidated down there," Anderson said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.