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Pentagon chief visits Somalia ahead of expected troop cuts

US acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller at the Pentagon with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
US acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller at the Pentagon with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller met with US troops and diplomats in Somalia on Friday, the first Pentagon chief to visit the strife-torn East African nation. He may also be the last.

The three-hour visit to Mogadishu, the Somali capital, came as the acting secretary was wrapping up an overseas trip to the Middle East and East Africa. For security reasons, the Pentagon announced the stopover only after Miller had left the country.

Miller is preparing to announce as early as next week that virtually all of the more than 700 US military troops in Somalia will depart by the time President Donald Trump leaves office in January.

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Before that happens, Pentagon officials said, Miller wanted to thank the troops in person over the Thanksgiving holiday and to meet with Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the head of the military’s Africa Command, and Donald Yamamoto, the US ambassador to Somalia. Townsend had pushed back on proposals earlier this year by Mark T. Esper, the defense secretary at the time, to draw down US forces and other assistance in Somalia.

In a statement issued by his command Friday, Townsend did not mention the expected troop cuts, but seemed to anticipate them by seeking to preemptively reassure African allies that the United States remained committed to the region.

“Partnership and a range of US assistance remains critically important to the stability, security and prosperity of this region,” said Townsend, who flew from his headquarters in Germany to meet with Miller in Somalia and Djibouti. “We must continue to work together and deliver whole-of-government, international and African solutions to address regional issues.”

Trump’s withdrawal plan would not apply to thousands of US troops stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where US drones that carry out airstrikes in Somalia are based. They would continue to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Shabab, the al-Qaida affiliate in East Africa, according to officials familiar with internal deliberations who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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Still, critics said the expected troop cuts would occur at a difficult time for Somalia. The country is preparing for parliamentary elections next month and a presidential election in early February. The removal of US troops could complicate any ability to keep election rallies and voting safe from al-Shabab attackers. Political turmoil has also erupted in neighboring Ethiopia, whose army has battled al-Shabab.

Most of the 700 US troops in Somalia are Special Operations forces stationed at a small number of bases across the country. Their missions include training and advising Somali army and counterterrorism troops and conducting kill-or-capture raids against al-Shabab.

Al-Shabab has in recent months issued specific new threats against Americans in East Africa — and even in the United States. Earlier this month, a veteran CIA paramilitary officer was killed in combat in Somalia. After a hiatus this year, al-Shabab fighters have increased a campaign of car bombings in Somalia, US counterterrorism and intelligence officials said.

Security inside Somalia is increasingly fraught despite a concerted campaign of US drone strikes and US-backed ground raids against al-Shabab fighters over the past two years, according to a report issued Wednesday by the inspectors general of the Defense and State departments and the US Agency for International Development.

“Despite many years of sustained Somali, US and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded,” the assessment concluded. “Shabab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting US interests.”

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Several ominous signs indicate that al-Shabab is seeking to expand its lethal operations well beyond a home base and attack Americans wherever it can — threats that have prompted 46 US drone strikes so far this year to try to snuff out the plotters. Last year, there were 63 drone strikes, almost all against al-Shabab militants, with a few against a branch of the Islamic State group.

In recent years, al-Shabab, which US intelligence analysts estimate have 5,000 to 10,000 fighters, has lost many of the cities and villages it once controlled. Despite a record number of US drone strikes, the group has morphed into a nimbler and deadlier organization, carrying out large-scale attacks against civilian and military targets across Somalia and in neighboring countries.

“Overall, drawing down US troops will offer a boost to the Shabab, improving its already advantageous position in the conflict, while weakening the government’s ability to counter the group or improve its capacity to do so,” said Tricia Bacon, a Somalia specialist at American University in Washington and a former State Department counterterrorism analyst.

Even some of Trump’s staunchest Republican allies in Congress have warned against deep troop cuts in Somalia.

“This strategy has worked, and our continued presence there has prevented al-Shabab from expanding its foothold in the region,” Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., chair of the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement last month. Inhofe expressed hope that Trump would “not take any action that would cause us to lose the ground we’ve gained, thanks to his strategy.”

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Smoothing over any ruffled feathers about Somalia on Capitol Hill will be another pre-withdrawal task for Miller, a former Army Green Beret officer who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Somalia has been on Miller’s mind for months, first when he was a senior counterterrorism adviser on the White House’s National Security Council, and then when he was tapped this year to be a top Special Operations policy official at the Pentagon.

Miller got his opportunity to act on his Somalia concerns soon after Trump selected him in August to be the head of the National Counterterrorism Center. It was in that capacity that Miller flew to the Middle East last month to pursue a diplomatic idea: asking Qatar to help devise plans to buy off or otherwise marginalize some of about a dozen al-Shabab leaders who are more committed to attacking the West.

The center is not supposed to play an operational role. But as Miller studied intelligence reports about al-Shabab’s senior leadership and Somalia, he told colleagues that it might be possible to change the equation that has kept the United States locked in irregular warfare with al-Shabab — including periodic drone strikes targeting suspected militants and the deadly al-Shabab assault on a US air base at Manda Bay, Kenya, in January.

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Miller obtained the blessing for that trip from his former colleagues at the National Security Council, and met with Qatari officials for preliminary discussions. But he also circumvented the nation’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and when Pompeo found out, he deemed the idea half-baked and shut it down.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.