WASHINGTON – The complete U.S. military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Somalia last year have made it more difficult for the United States to counter terror groups that aspire to attack America and its allies, senior commanders told Congress on Tuesday.
And they said Russia and China are both seeking to bolster their influence in the Middle East and Africa, with Moscow being the more “acute threat" right now.
Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, said sending teams of U.S. forces into Somalia on a periodic basis is not efficient or effective and puts American troops at greater risk.
“In my view, we are marching in place at best. We may be backsliding,” Townsend told the Senate Armed Forces Committee. He said troops “commuting to work” has created new challenges, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is considering changes there.
Former President Donald Trump ordered the complete withdrawal of the roughly 700 U.S. troops in Somalia as one of his final acts in office.
Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the committee, pressed Townsend on the Somalia withdrawal, saying the al-Shabab militant group has gained strength. He asked if Townsend has submitted a request to put U.S. forces back in Somalia, and if so, what the response was.
Townsend declined to detail publicly what requests he submitted to Austin or if he has gotten a response. He said that right now, the U.S. is not putting sufficient pressure on al-Shabab, and “the best we can do is maintain security” around the bases that American troops go in and out of intermittently.
Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said the U.S. has not launched any strikes on Islamic State insurgents in Afghanistan since the U.S. military pulled out of the country last August. He said the militant group has grown since the U.S. left and there are concerns about its ongoing development. He said the group has carried out high-profile attacks in Afghanistan and still aspires to strike the U.S. and allies.
McKenzie said the Taliban, which swept across Afghanistan and took control of the government last year, still is trying to counter the Islamic State. But he said it is more difficult for the Taliban to control al-Qaida elements in the country, because the two groups have long been more closely aligned.
McKenzie said that without sustained counterterrorism pressure, militants have more time and space to prepare for attacks. Sustained military pressure prevents groups from being able to grow, train and plot, he said.
And, while McKenzie stressed that his top priority in the Middle East is countering the malign activities of Iran, both he and Townsend said Russia and China are continuing to try to expand their economic and military influence across his region and Africa. As the U.S. withdraws troops, both countries will try to capitalize on America's absence, they said.
In other comments, McKenzie said the U.S. has seen only “very small groups” of Syrians trying to make their way to Ukraine to assist the Russians in the war there. “Right now it's a very small trickle,” he said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin late last week approved bringing in volunteer fighters from the Middle East, particularly Syria, to bolster the Russian war effort.
Russia’s military is deeply entrenched in Syria, where its intervention — starting in 2015 — helped Syrian President Bashar Assad gain the upper hand in the ongoing, 11-year civil war.
On Friday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke of “more than 16,000 applications” already from the Middle East, though he didn’t specify which country. Syrian opposition activists say Russia recently began recruitment efforts in Syria for the Ukraine war, but put the scale of those efforts at far lower numbers.
In response to questions, McKenzie also told the senators that the U.S. was not the target of the Iranian missile attack near a sprawling U.S. consulate complex in northern Iraq.
He declined to provide details in the public session. But Iran has claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was retaliation for an Israeli strike in Syria that killed two members of its Revolutionary Guard earlier this week.
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard said on its website that it attacked what it described as an Israeli spy center in Irbil. It did not elaborate.