For 16 months now, American military personnel in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility have provided advise-and-assist support to forces in Somalia on an ad hoc basis — traveling into the country when needed and then leaving afterward. U.S. forces are helping Somali forces in the fight against al-Shabab. But the ad hoc model will soon change to one of persistent presence in the country, Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby said.
"The president has authorized the Department of Defense to return a small, persistent U.S. military presence to Somalia," Kirby told reporters today during a briefing in the Pentagon. "This decision was based on a request from [Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III] and included advice from senior commanders and, of course, concern for the safety of our troops who have incurred additional risk by deploying in and out of Somalia on an episodic basis for the past 16 months."
Plans are being made now for just how and when that change will be implemented, Kirby said. But he did add that the mission for U.S. forces involved will be the same — they will provide advise-and-assist support but will not be directly involved in conflict.
"Those forces, as they have been, will continue to be used in training, advising and equipping partner forces to give them the tools that they need to disrupt, degrade and monitor al-Shabab," Kirby said. "Our forces are not now, nor will they be, directly engaged in combat operations. The purpose here is to enable a more effective fight against al-Shabab by local forces."
Kirby told reporters the Department recognizes that al-Shabab has increased in strength and so poses a heightened threat. The existing model of U.S. assistance moving into and out of the country as needed, he said, is inefficient.
"The advise-and-assist mission, as we've seen in many places around the world, is best done when you're on site, and you can develop those relationships and keep those conversations going and stay as relevant as possible," he said. "When you're coming and going, that ... contact is a little bit harder to work."
Kirby also said that just moving into and out of the country, rather than staying in place, increased the risk to U.S. troops.
"Shifting to a persistent presence will not change the mission and it will not imply substantial changes in resources," he said. "We're working now to evaluate local conditions, including those following the Somali presidential election yesterday. And we're engaging partners in the region, including the Somali government to determine the best way forward."