Kenya’s Daily Nation on Sunday reported President Joe Biden is deploying U.S. troops to Kenya to assist with counter-terrorism efforts, particularly against the Somalia-based al-Shabaab terrorist organization.
The Kenyan paper said the news came from “a letter to the U.S. Congress seen by the Sunday Nation,” implying the document was sensitive and authoritative.
The document appears to be, judging from the excerpts the Nation published, a routine letter sent by the president to House and Senate leadership as required by the War Powers Act of 1973. The Act essentially requires the White House to regularly inform Congress about every place American armed forces are deployed, in any number, for any reason. American media paid little attention to the latest of these reports, which the White House published June 8.
The reference to U.S. troops in Kenya appeared in the section on U.S. military deployments in the East Africa region. Biden’s letter to Congress went on at greater length about American military personnel sent to Djibouti:
At the direction of the prior administration, the majority of United States forces in Somalia redeployed or repositioned to neighboring countries prior to my inauguration as President. United States Armed Forces based outside Somalia continue to counter the terrorist threat posed by ISIS and al-Shabaab, an associated force of al-Qa’ida, in Somalia.
Since the last periodic report, United States forces have conducted a small number of airstrikes against al-Shabaab, and remain prepared to conduct airstrikes against ISIS and al‑Shabaab terrorists. United States military personnel conduct periodic engagements in Somalia to train, advise, and assist regional forces, including Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia forces, during counterterrorism operations.
United States Armed Forces are deployed to Kenya to support counterterrorism operations in East Africa. United States military personnel continue to partner with the Government of Djibouti, which has permitted use of Djiboutian territory for basing of United States Armed Forces. United States military personnel remain deployed to Djibouti, including for purposes of staging for counterterrorism and counter-piracy operations in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and to provide contingency support for embassy security augmentation in East Africa, as necessary.
The Daily Nation thought the letter signaled a major U.S. “security boost for Kenya” and said Biden has “embarked on the reversal of many policies that had been rolled out” by his predecessor, Donald Trump. However, while the Daily Nation wrote of Biden announcing “impending military action by U.S. forces to be stationed in Kenya,” the White House letter to Congress actually speaks of that deployment in the past tense, leaving open the possibility of the newspaper having initially referred to a different document. The text of the article does not clarify.
The Daily Nation reporters mentioned their disappointment at being unable to “immediately obtain a classified annex to the report which Mr Biden shared with the US Congress detailing the number of troops to be deployed to Kenya.”
Fewer than 800 American troops were stationed in Somalia before the Trump-directed withdrawal lamented in the Kenyan report. Many of them were redeployed to Kenya after Trump ordered them withdrawn from Somalia, joining a small American contingent already positioned in Kenya. Other U.S. soldiers formerly deployed to Somalia moved to Djibouti.
American airstrikes against al-Shabaab compounds and leaders continued and, indeed, intensified, after the withdrawal from Somalia. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) conducted six airstrikes against al-Shabaab before the end of January 2021. Although it is always possible more American forces will be deployed against al-Shabaab and stationed in Kenya, Biden’s letter to Congress does not necessarily indicate major changes in current deployments or a significant shift in East African strategy.
The Daily Nation mentioned that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has already “ruled out” one of the major reasons Biden might be interested in sending a few more special operations forces to Kenya, namely covert drone strikes against terrorist forces operating within Kenya’s borders.
Another possibility would be more American troops deployed to reinforce security at existing installations in Kenya, such as the Manda Bay coastal base which al-Shabaab fighters attacked in January 2020.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin ordered a “high-level review” of the incident in April 2021. The initial investigation by AFRICOM revealed that local Kenyan forces assigned to protect the base hid and refused to engage the enemy during the assault. Poor intelligence about terrorist movements in Kenya, and dangerous assumptions that the quiet Manda Bay airstrip was an unlikely target for al-Shabaab, were also cited as problems.
A contingent of 50 to 100 specialized troops from the U.S. East Africa Response Force (EARF) was sent to Manda Bay after the attack. This may have been the deployment Biden was referencing in his letter to Congress.