U.S. Army soldiers discuss operations during a security patrol stop in Somalia on December 3, 2019. File Photo by Tech. Sgt. Nick Kibbey/U.S. Air Force
Dec. 4 (UPI) -- The Trump administration on Friday ordered most U.S. troops out of Somalia, a move a Defense Department watchdog warned last month could damage gains the country has made against al-Shabab.
The Pentagon said "the majority of personnel and assets" in Somalia will be removed from the East African country by "early 2021." A news release from the department declined to offer a specific timeline on the moves.
"As a result of this decision, some forces may be reassigned outside of East Africa," the release said. "However, the remaining forces will be repositioned from Somalia into neighboring countries in order to allow cross-border operations by both U.S. and partner forces to maintain pressure against violent extremist organizations operating in Somalia."
The United States maintains about 700 troops in Somalia mainly to train and advise local Somali forces in their fight against al-Qaida's largest affiliate, al-Shabab, and affiliates of the Islamic State. U.S. service members carried out an airstrike that killed a top al-Shabab leader in September.
The Pentagon said the decision to remove most troops doesn't change U.S. policy.
"The U.S. is not withdrawing or disengaging from Africa. We remain committed to our African partners and enduring support through a whole-of-government approach," the statement said.
"We will continue to degrade violent extremist organizations that could threaten our homeland while ensuring we maintain our strategic advantage in great power competition."
A Pentagon Inspector General report in November said, though, a reduction in U.S. forces could damage gains the Somali government has made against al-Shabab.
"Despite many years of sustained Somali, United States, and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded," the report said. "Al-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 U.S. interests."
Clyde Hughes contributed to this report.