WASHINGTON — Pentagon plans to scale back its role in Somalia and curtail airstrikes against al-Shabaab insurgents after having taken out many of the group’s senior operatives, two senior U.S. officials told NBC News, the latest signal the Trump administration is looking to cut the number of troops deployed around the world.
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The move reflects an assessment by the administration that while the Shabaab insurgency remains a threat to the Somali government and neighboring countries, it does not pose a direct danger to the U.S., current and former officials said. And it follows President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement last month that he had ordered U.S. forces out of Syria and asked for plans to be drawn up for a possible drawdown in Afghanistan.
Former officials and counterterrorism experts say if the Trump administration presses ahead with its plans it could create a dangerous opening for al Qaeda, ISIS and other extremists to carve out sanctuaries and launch terrorist attacks on U.S. and Western targets.
The planned change also illustrates a broader strategic shift by the U.S. military to reduce forces devoted to counterterrorism operations in Africa and focus more on traditional adversaries such as Russia and China.
At the start of his term, Trump initially deployed additional troops to Somalia and gave commanders more latitude to call in air power, opening the way for an increase in bombing raids against Shabaab militants waging war against the Somali government.
But under guidance issued by Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned last month, the military “is narrowing its mission a bit” in Somalia, one senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told NBC News.
Part of the reason for the change was that U.S. military aircraft had already taken out many senior leaders in the Shabaab insurgency.
“I would say we’re running out of targets,” the official said.
Under the plan, responsibility for bombing militants in Somalia would be shifted to the CIA, officials said.
That would likely mean pulling out some U.S. special operation forces that help pilots pinpoint targets, including for offensives carried out by African Union-led troops. The Pentagon has about 500 personnel in Somalia, including troops, civilians, and contractors, according to U.S. Africa Command.
It remained unclear how many U.S. forces would remain on the ground under the planned shift.
The CIA, unlike the U.S. military, is not equipped to deploy hundreds of personnel on the ground to direct air strikes, and would almost certainly carry out fewer bombing raids. The agency could target gatherings of Shabaab militants but would not be well-positioned to provide air power for a ground offensive by Somali government fighters or African Union troops, former officials said.
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The U.S. has ramped up bombing raids on Shabaab targets over the past year, carrying out 47 strikes in 2018, up from 35 in 2017, according to U.S. Africa Command.
The U.S. military said it conducted an airstrike Wednesday near Dheerow Sanle, killing an estimated 10 militants. And on Dec. 19, it bombed Shabaab targets in two strikes, killing 11 militants.
U.S. officials suggested that while Shabaab militants stage attacks in Somalia and against neighboring countries, they did not pose an imminent national security threat to the U.S.