Several senators want to send U.S. troops back into Somalia to fight al-Shabaab terrorists, about 16 months after former President Donald Trump pulled them out of the country and put them elsewhere in Africa.
The push came at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday with Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command.
Townsend told senators he has given his chain of command advice on whether to redeploy to Somalia. While he would not specify his recommendation in a public setting, Townsend made clear he does not think the current arrangement of what he described as "commuting" to Somalia is working.
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"It is not effective, it's not efficient, and it puts our troops at greater risk," he said.
The comments were blunter than what Townsend told the committee a year ago, when he warned that positioning troops outside Somalia "introduced new layers of complexity and risk" to the U.S. mission there.
Tuesday's hearing came after The Wall Street Journal reported last week that U.S. military officials have asked President Joe Biden to station several hundred troops in Somalia to stem growing threats from al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida affiliate.
During the waning days of Trump's presidency, he pulled all of the 700 or so U.S. special operators who were in Somalia out.
Trump framed the move as part of his efforts to end "forever wars" and bring troops home from foreign lands. But all of the troops were sent instead to Kenya or Djibouti, from which aircraft have been flying over Somalia to conduct airstrikes against al-Shabaab. Troops have also visited Somalia for periodic exercises with local forces.
U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, has publicized five airstrikes in Somalia since Biden took office, most recently last month. The Biden administration has been reviewing Trump's 11th hour move on Somalia since shortly after taking office, but has yet to announce any changes.
Several senators on Tuesday pressed Townsend on the situation in Somalia and expressed concern that pulling troops from the country and conducting what's called "over-the-horizon" operations, where strikes are ordered without troops on the ground, have allowed al-Shabaab to flourish.
"It increases risk and decreases our effectiveness," committee ranking member Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who is typically a staunch Trump supporter but opposed the Somalia withdrawal, said about over-the-horizon operations. "We're seeing this play out on the ground in Somalia as things get worse and al-Shabaab gains strength."
Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I., similarly warned that security in east Africa has been on a "downward trajectory" since Trump's withdrawal and that U.S. and partner efforts "to disrupt and degrade the most dangerous violent extremist organizations have not achieved the success we need."
Pressed by Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., on how operating from outside Somalia is working, Townsend said "we are marching in place at best" when it comes to fighting terrorism. In addition to the issues of being stationed outside the country, Townsend also blamed political dysfunction in Mogadishu and "inactivity" by the peacekeeping mission known as the African Union Mission to Somalia for the worsening security situation there.
"We may be backsliding at the security in Somalia," Townsend said. "I just think that what we're doing is not providing sufficient pressure, and the best we can do is maintain a secure area around the bases that we return to, and we really can't get at the al-Shabaab problem set."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
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