The United States is considering a sharp reduction in its special forces operations in Somalia and other African countries, the New York Times reported on Monday.
As many as half of the US counter-terrorism troops based on the continent could be withdrawn over the next three years, the report states.
A total of roughly 6,000 American soldiers are currently assigned to several African countries, according to the US Africa Command (Africom). About 500 of those commandos, trainers and logistics specialists are based in Somalia, where they assist African Union and Somali national forces in carrying out attacks on al-Shabaab.
US military action in Somalia mainly takes the form of drone strikes that are said to have killed dozens of Shabaab militants in the past year. But some US troops operate on the ground in an advisory capacity, and a steep reduction in their numbers could have negative consequences for the 11-year-long war against al-Shabaab.
The contemplated reduction in US troop levels in Africa is mainly a product of two factors, the Times reports.
One is the political furore that erupted following the killing of four US soldiers last October during a counter-insurgency operation in Niger.
A Pentagon investigation into that attack “exposed a risk-taking culture among commandos,” the Times reported on Monday. And that finding strengthened US Defence Secretary James Mattis’s inclination to reduce counter-insurgency missions in Africa, the newspaper said.
At the same time, the US is putting greater emphasis on responding to perceived military threats posed by Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. A share of the special forces currently based in Africa would be reassigned to missions elsewhere in the world in accordance with that strategic reassessment, the Times said.
Last year, President Donald Trump loosened restrictions on US military operations in Somalia that the Obama administration had put in place with the aim of avoiding civilian casualties.
An escalation in drone strikes ensued, along with an increase in the number of US military personnel inside Somalia.
The Defence Department maintains there is no evidence that US forces have killed any Somali civilians since field commanders were given greater leeway in ordering attacks on Shabaab targets.
That assertion is included in a Defence Department report to Congress last week that acknowledges “credible reports of approximately 499 civilians killed” in US military operations in 2017 in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen.
Reports of another 450 civilian casualties remain under investigation, the Defence Department added. One of those open inquiries pertains to an attack in Somalia.
Independent monitors as well as local Somali officials have charged that civilians have been killed as a result of some US air strikes as well as in the course of ground battles in which US troops played an advisory role.