WASHINGTON – President Trump’s surprise tweet last week that he would pull all US troops out of Afghanistan by Christmas isn’t the only major military mission he could abruptly shrink or end as election day approaches.
Mr Trump has told senior advisers that he would also like to see plans to withdraw all American forces in Somalia, despite senior military and counter-terrorism officials warning that doing so will strengthen the deadly Al-Qaeda subsidiary there and cede strategic land in East Africa to China and China would Russia.
The president sent mixed signals last month when he stated that American forces “are not in Syria” except to guard the region’s oil fields. His comments came on the day the Pentagon said it was sending Bradley combat vehicles, more fighter aircraft patrols and about 100 additional troops to northeast Syria after a Russian armored vehicle rammed an American ground patrol there in August and injured seven soldiers.
“We are fighting in all these different places in countries no one has heard of, and it hurts because we – you wear down your military,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business last week. “And we always have to be prepared for China, Russia and these other places. We have to be prepared. “
But even high-ranking military commanders have tried to distance themselves from their commanders in the chief’s troop withdrawal forecasts, which caught them off guard. And critics say the president is exposing the country to even greater national security risks in attempting to fulfill an election promise to bring home American troops from “endless wars”.
“There is no strategy; There are only elections, ”said Kori Schake, who leads foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
The latest news of possible troop withdrawals came this week as senior government officials said Mr Trump had told senior aides that he intended to withdraw U.S. forces from Somalia, confirmed an earlier report by Bloomberg News and added more details.
One idea currently under consideration is to remove most or all of the ground forces from the country – including those who trained and advised Somali forces – and end strikes aimed at making the Shabab, Al Qaeda’s largest and most active global subsidiary, fight or demote. Counter-terrorism, use of drones, troop presence in nearby countries and targeted attacks on individual Shabab members who are believed to be planning terrorist attacks outside Somalia would appear to remain permissible.
The White House convened a small meeting of senior officials late last week to discuss Mr Trump’s call for more drastic troop withdrawal options, according to three officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials involved in the discussion included Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They added that no decisions had been made.
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A Pentagon spokesman referred questions about the deliberations to the White House National Security Council, where a spokesman declined to comment.
There are currently around 700 American troops in Somalia. Most are special forces stationed at a small number of bases across the country. Her missions include training and advising Somali army and counter-terrorism forces, as well as carrying out kill-or-capture attacks against the Shabab.
The Shabab has issued specific new threats against Americans in East Africa – and even the United States – in recent months. After a hiatus this year, it has stepped up a campaign of car bombings in Somalia, American counter-terrorism and intelligence officials said.
Several ominous signs suggest that the Shabab is trying to extend its deadly operations well beyond its home base and attack Americans wherever possible – threats that have resulted in 46 American drone strikes so far this year to wipe out the conspirators. Last year there were 63 drone strikes, almost all of them against Shabab fighters, some against a branch of Islamic State.
In recent years the Shabab, which American intelligence analysts estimate has 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, has lost many of the cities and villages it once controlled. Despite a record number of American drone strikes, the group has grown into a more nimble and deadly organization carrying out large-scale attacks against civilian and military targets in Somalia and neighboring countries.
“A withdrawal of US forces from Somalia will give the Shabab a critical strategic advantage in the conflict in Somalia and greatly increase the terrorist threat in East Africa, including to Americans and American targets,” said Tricia Bacon, Somalia specialist at American University in Washington and former State Department counter-terrorism analyst.
Colonel Christopher P. Karns, the main spokesman for the military’s Africa Command, declined to comment on Trump’s urge to withdraw troops from Somalia. Instead, Colonel Karns offered a defense for the current mission.
“US Africa Command continues to train Somali forces, monitor Al Shabab, and disrupt and dismantle a dangerous Al Shabab terror network whose long-term ambitions are to attack the United States,” he said in a statement.
Oct. 15, 2020, 11:40 a.m. ET
Colonel Karns also pointed to the Pentagon’s broader strategy to counter threats from Moscow and Beijing around the world. “If you look at the global power contest in Africa, this is a place where China and Russia are trying to be great and continue to prioritize activities, especially in economic terms,” he said.
Even some of Mr. Trump’s most staunch Republican allies in Congress are warning him of deep troop cuts in Somalia.
“That strategy worked, and our continued presence there prevented Al Shabab from gaining a foothold in the region,” said Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma and chairman of the Armed Forces Committee, in a statement. Mr Inhofe expressed the hope that Mr Trump “would not take any action that would result in our strategy losing the ground we have gained”.
The military backlash on large withdrawals in Somalia came after General Milley last week distanced himself from sudden and contradicting announcements by the White House of Afghan troops withdrawals.
Without warning to the Pentagon, National Security Advisor Robert C. O’Brien told an audience in Las Vegas last Wednesday that the United States would reduce its troops in Afghanistan to 2,500 by early next year. That surprised Defense Department officials and senior military commanders, who said they were still operating under orders to bring troops down to 4,500 by the end of the fall.
Mr Trump then added to the confusion when he contradicted Mr O’Brien hours later and suggested a schedule via Twitter as early as Christmas to get all the troops home.
“We should have the small remaining number of our BRAVE men and women who will be at home in Afghanistan by Christmas!” he wrote.
General Milley, unwilling to disrupt the good working relationship he had built with the president, still seemed frustrated by the accelerated timeline and conflicting troop withdrawal messages. He did not criticize the Commander-in-Chief, but did discuss the national security adviser’s comments.
“I think Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as he sees fit,” General Milley said in an interview with NPR on Sunday. “I will embark on a rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and plans I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”
In northeastern Syria, the military’s central command sent reinforcements to the hotly contested region last month after the Russians deliberately rammed the American vehicle.
White House and Pentagon officials criticized the Russians for what American officials called reckless aggression. But Mr Trump remained silent on the episode, prompting Democrats to view it as the latest example of the president’s failure to question Russia’s growing hostility towards the West. This includes meddling in the elections and rewarding American troops in Afghanistan.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential candidate, reprimanded Mr. Trump for failing to publicly address the conflict in Syria: “Did you hear the president say a single word? Did he lift a finger? “he said in a speech in Pennsylvania on August 31st.
US military commanders expressed cautious optimism that the president would not withdraw any of the more than 600 troops in Syria, at least for the time being. These troops are helping Syrian Kurdish allies carry out counter-terrorism missions against remnants of the Islamic State.
However, those same commanders have all too vivid memories of Mr. Trump’s penchant for going on Twitter to pronounce a new policy change, as he did when he announced an earlier troop withdrawal from Syria in 2018 without informing the Pentagon. This move resulted in the resignation of Jim Mattis as Secretary of Defense.
With election day less than three weeks away, Pentagon officials are preparing to face the ramifications of another possible prediction by the presidential troops.
“How can we reduce the risk of US troops withdrawing from these locations?” said Seth G. Jones, the director of the Transnational Threat Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. “I hear crickets. That is not a recipe for sound foreign policy. “
Charlie Savage contributed to the coverage.