The US military plans to scale back its role in Somalia and reduce airstrikes against al-Shabab insurgents after having taken out many of the group's senior operatives, two senior US officials told NBC News.
The move reflects an assessment by the Trump administration that while the Shabab insurgency remains a threat to the Somali government and neighboring countries, it does not pose a direct danger to the US, the officials said.
In a statement, Defense Department spokesperson Navy Cmdr. Candice Tresch said, “There have been no recent policy changes regarding US operations in Somalia. We continue to support the Federal Government of Somalia's efforts to degrade al Shabab.”
The planned change also illustrates a broader strategic shift by the US military to reduce forces engaged in counterterrorism operations in Africa and focus more on traditional adversaries such as Russia and China.
“I would say we're running out of targets,” said one of the officials. Under the plan, responsibility for bombing militants in Somalia would be shifted to the CIA, officials said. That would likely mean pulling out some US special operation forces that help pilots pinpoint targets, including for offensives carried out by African Union-led troops. The Pentagon has about 500 personnel in Somalia, including troops, civilians, and contractors, according to US Africa Command.
The CIA, unlike the US military, is not equipped to deploy hundreds of personnel on the ground to direct air strikes, and would almost certainly carry out fewer bombing raids. The agency could target gatherings of Shabab militants but would not be well-positioned to provide air power for a ground offensive by Somali government fighters or African Union troops, former officials said.