ADDIS ABABA — President Donald Trump's decision to pull U.S. troops out of Somalia in the waning days of his presidency triggered dismay on Saturday from some Somalis, who appealed to the incoming U.S. president to reverse the decision.
"The U.S. decision to pull troops out of Somalia at this critical stage in the successful fight against al-Shabaab and their global terrorist network is extremely regrettable," Senator Ayub Ismail Yusuf told Reuters in a statement, referring to the al Qaida-linked al Shabaab insurgency.
"U.S. troops have made a huge contribution and had great impact on the training and operational effectiveness of Somali soldiers," said Yusuf, a member of Somalia's Senate Foreign Affairs Committee.
He tagged U.S. President-elect Joe Biden in a tweet criticizing the decision.
The Somali government could not immediately be reached for comment early on Saturday to Friday's decision to withdraw almost all the roughly 700 U.S. troops by Jan. 15.
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Somalia's fragile internationally backed government is due to hold parliamentary elections this month and national elections in early February, a precursor to the planned drawdown of the 17,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force.
U.S. troops have been in Somalia, mostly supporting Somali special forces known as Danab in operations against al Shabaab, whose attacks in nations like Kenya and Uganda have killed hundreds of civilians, including Americans.
Danab punches above its weight because regular forces are often poorly trained and equipped, frequently desert their posts or become enmeshed in power struggles between the national and regional governments.
If the withdrawal is permanent, "it will have a huge toll on counterterrorism efforts," said Colonel Ahmed Abdullahi Sheikh, who served for three years until 2019 as the Danab commander.
He fought alongside U.S. forces, he said, and during his command two Americans and more than a hundred of his own men had died. Both U.S. and Somali forces opposed the withdrawal, he said.
The U.S. program to expand Danab to 3,000 men was supposed to continue until 2027, Sheikh said, but its future is unclear.
Airstrikes will likely continue from bases in Kenya and Djibouti, which could also provide a launchpad for cross-border operations. Rights group Amnesty International says the airstrikes have killed at least 16 civilians in the past three years.
The U.S. withdrawal comes at a turbulent time in the region. Ethiopia, which is a major troop contributor to the peacekeeping forces and has thousands more troops in Somalia bilaterally, is distracted by an internal conflict that broke out last month. It has disarmed hundreds of its peacekeepers already.
Somalia has been riven by civil war since 1991, but the entry of the peacekeeping force in 2008 helped incubate fledgling government structures that allowed for gradual reforms of the military, such as a biometric system to pay soldiers and the formation of Danab.
But many problems with the Somali military remain, including corruption and political interference. Perhaps a withdrawal will force Somalia to confront them, said Sheikh. Or perhaps it will make them worse.