WASHINGTON — New details are emerging about the U.S. military mission in Somalia, where it was revealed that up to 120 U.S. special operators are training and advising local Somali forces in their fight against the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab.
Defense officials speaking on the condition of anonymity confirmed that teams of advisers have been deploying to the country since 2007 for noncombat missions, and that the numbers have gradually grown over the years.
The advisers in past years worked with troops from the African Union Mission to Somalia, but are now directly training Somali armed forces. Teams of advisers are working in locations throughout the country; the numbers vary as deployments begin and end.
“We’ve had these advisers working out of AFRICOM for a while,” a defense official said. “It’s Special Forces doing what they do in the area of training and advising.”
While there are no plans to increase the size of the advisory mission, officials said, the United States’ goal is to normalize relations with Somalia, a project that would include more involvement with and support for the Somali National Army.
“We’re talking about deepening the whole of government relationship, and that will include military,” a defense official said.
AFRICOM declined to discuss in detail the mission in Somalia, emphasizing that the operations have involved limited numbers of troops.
“For security reasons, we will not disclose any specific information regarding numbers of personnel, formations, resources or time lines regarding this commitment,” said Ben Benson, an AFRICOM spokesman. “However, we are talking about a small number of personnel. Regarding the reported number of personnel (120 troops), it is important to note that there was no single deployment of such a size, rather we have operated in smaller groups that have moved in and out of multiple locations in the area.”
In recent years, U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Somalia has focused on bolstering the capabilities of African Union forces that have been doing much of the fighting against Islamic militants in Somalia. Efforts have centered on training and equipping those AU troops, many of whom have come from Uganda and Burundi.
U.S. officials have credited AU fighters with turning the tide in Somalia, where al-Shabab was once poised to overrun the capital city of Mogadishu.
Though the group remains a threat, it has been pushed out of numerous former strongholds in Somalia in the past couple of years.
Earlier this year, the U.S. military disclosed that a regular presence of U.S. troops — generally less than two dozen — are in Mogadishu at any given time as part of a “military coordination cell.”
That team, along with other military personnel scattered around the country, remain focused on building up regional militaries operating in Somalia as well as the Somali force itself.
“Our purpose is to strengthen their capability to bring security and stability to the region,” Benson said.