Acting US Defense Secretary Christopher Miller has made a rare visit to Somalia amid wide anticipation that the outgoing President Donald Trump intends to order the pullout of most or all of the 700 American troops in the restive North African nation before his term ends on January 20.
Announcing the visit in a brief statement on Saturday, the US Defense Department said Miller -- who was installed by Trump as acting military chief on November 9 after firing Mark Esper -- met with American service members in the Somali capital of Mogadishu on Friday to express appreciation for their work and to reiterate the US commitment to combating extremist groups.
Miller arrived in Djibouti on Thursday as part of his Thanksgiving holiday tour of the Middle East and parts of North Africa purportedly to meet with US troops in the region, according to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth.
During that stop, he added, Miller took a flight to Somalia to extend his holiday message of appreciation and support to the US service members operating in Mogadishu.
Information about which base or the specific troops Miller met with was not disclosed, however, as reporters did not travel with him to Somalia in what a military official said was possibly the first visit to the troubled country by a US defense secretary, according to a report by the Washington-based Stars & Stripes military newspaper.
Just hours after Miller's visit, the US-backed Somali government reported a suicide bombing in Mogadishu that killed at least seven people, adding that the al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants claimed responsibility for the attack.
The development came as a Defense Department inspector general report released on Wednesday claimed that US Africa Command (AFRICOM ) has seen “a definitive shift” in recent months of al-Shabab’s focus to attack American interests in the region.
According to the report, AFRICOM also believes the Somali militant group is the most “dangerous, capable, and imminent threat” on the continent, further insisting that it also intends “to attack America, but does not have the ability now to do so.”
In the past year, the reports adds, al-Shabab has been behind three attacks that have killed or injured US personnel: September 2019 at Baledogle Airfield in Somalia; Manda Bay in Kenya in January, and an attack in September in southern Somalia.
Miller’s unexpected visit to Somalia amid Trump’s reported plans to withdraw US forces from the country came as experts cited in American press reports insist that the pullout of troops would leave Somali forces vulnerable to be overrun by local militant groups.
The reports further point to the heavy involvement of American forces in Somalia in conducting “counter-terrorism” operations as well as training, advising and supporting Somali government forces, adding that the US military has also conducted air strikes in the country to kill al-Shabab members.
The reports further underline that Washington’s plans to remove US forces from Somalia comes at the worst possible time, pointing to the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in the country, improvement of al-Shabab “bomb-making skills” and expected withdrawal of African Union’s 19,000-strong AMISOM forces from the nation, whose own forces remain incapable of maintain security.
Moreover, the Pentagon’s inspector general report further emphasized that implementation of the plan for Somali forces to take over the country's security next year is “badly off track.”
Somali forces cannot contain the al-Shabab threat on its own, the report maintains, adding that they still rely on the international community for financial support, and yet they “sometimes go unpaid for months.”
Miller, who previously headed the National Counterterrorism Center, has been in the Middle East and parts of North Africa this week on his first international trip as acting defense secretary. He has not been nominated by Trump for Senate confirmation as Pentagon chief.