Pentagon Chief on Africa Tour Focusing on Defense Issues

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Djiboutian leaders and the president of Somalia in Djibouti on Sunday, marking his first trip to Africa as Secretary of Defense amid continued violence in the region. Later in the week, he will travel to Kenya and Angola.

Djibouti is home to the U.S. military’s major base on the continent, and Austin said Camp Lemonnier was “critical” to “countering violent extremism and supporting security throughout the region.”

He added that the U.S. is proud to partner with Djiboutian forces and African Union forces in support of neighboring Somalia, where al-Shabab militants are increasingly resistant amid ongoing military operations against the group.

Al-Shabab is the main branch of al-Qaida on the continent.

Somalia faced recent setbacks in its fight against al-Shabab after a deadly attack on the town of Cowsweyne on August 26. The incident left dozens of government soldiers dead and resulted in a hasty retreat from front lines and towns previously captured from the militant group.

The setback was one of the reasons Somalia cited in requesting a “technical pause” to the military drawdown of African Union forces from Somalia. The drawdown, which started last week, is scheduled to see 3,000 AU soldiers transferring their forward operating bases to Somali soldiers by the end of this month.

“Unfortunately, on August 26, 2023 we have suffered several significant setbacks after the attack on our forces in Cowsweyne area, Galgudud region and the subsequent retreats by the forces from several towns that were recently liberated,” read the letter written by National Security Adviser Hussein Sheikh-Ali. “This unforeseen turn of events has stretched our military forces thin, exposed our vulnerabilities in our front lines.”

A U.S. defense official described al-Shabab as a “difficult challenge” and “not one that is going to stop overnight.”

“It’s one that’s going to continue to require consistent, sustained cooperation between us and our east African partners on this, including Kenya,” the official said.