Troops under the African Union Mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, have begun a steady withdrawal of forces from the region, amid increasing violence and threats from resurgent Al Shabab militants.
The drawdown of AMISOM forces from the region could have dire impacts on the U.S. mission there, where just over 500 U.S. troops are currently serving.
The withdrawal of forces from the five troop-contributing countries of Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Djibouti -- has been scheduled for some time as a result of caps placed by UN Security Council Resolution 2373, according to a U.S. State Department official.
The UN Resolution authorized the AMISOM mission to continue until May 31, 2018, with a cap on forces at 21,626 by Dec. 31, 2018.
AMISOM has routinely said its withdrawal will be conditions-based with a turnover of competent Somali security forces capable of maintaining security stability in the region.
"Over the coming weeks, AMISOM's strategic troop movements will continue, without disrupting the provision of the existing security services, to ensure the safety of the people of Somalia, who remain at the core of AMISOM's operational consideration," reads a recent statement from AMISOM about upcoming troop withdrawals from the region.
However, AMISOM's withdrawal from the region appears anything but conditions based as the country has been plagued with a spate of vehicle bombings and killings over the last several months.
In mid-October, a truck bomb killed several hundred people and wounded over 500, according to a report from the Guardian. It was one of the deadliest terror attacks in Somalia's history.
Moreover, the withdrawal, especially anything beyond the UN cap, is likely to impact the U.S. mission in Somalia which is dual focused on training Somali forces but also counterterrorism and targeting of high valued Al Shabaab and just recent ISIS targets.
U.S. forces carried out a strike against ISIS targets for the first time just last Friday.
Officials at U.S. Africa Command won't comment on future U.S. force posturing in the region as a result of AMISOM's drawdown, citing operation security issues.
But currently, there are over 500 U.S. troops serving in the war-torn region, according to Robyn Mack, a spokesperson for U.S. AFRICOM.
According to AFRICOM's 2017 posture statement presented before lawmakers earlier this year by Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, AFRICOM has supported efforts to push AMISOM's mission into 2019.
"From a security perspective, we view the presence of AMISOM as absolutely vital to maintaining security in Somalia until conditions allow for a gradual withdrawal," Mack recently told Military Times.
Though Somali forces have shown progress "international support will remain a key enabling factor for the Somali National Security Forces," Mack added.
Overall, the security situation in Somalia looks bleak. According to assessments by AFRICOM, there are 3,000 to 6,000 Shabaab fighters and roughly 250 ISIS militants operating in the country.
Though AMISOM forces have been successful in driving militants out of major urban areas, Shabab dominates areas of the rural countryside, using the ungoverned spaces as a springboard to harass and target Somali and AMISOM forces.
"Al-Shabab controls roughly 20 percent of Somalia, primarily in southern Somalia where they have maintained a historical presence," Mack told Military Times
"ISIS-Somalia doesn't control any territory but maintains influence and a very small presence in Somalia in northern Puntland. And the Federal Government of Somalia controls less than 50 percent of its territory," Mack explained.
The drawdown of AMISOM forces without an increased U.S. footprint could lead to further loss of territory by Somali forces.
"This will depend on how a withdrawal of AMISOM is conducted and highlights the importance of a well-thought out, the conditions-based hand-off between Somali National Security Forces and AMISOM," Mack told Military Times, in response to a question about expected territorial losses by Somali forces as a result of AMISOMs drawdown.
Nevertheless, U.S. forces in the region face already stepped up strikes against militants in the country. In early September, U.S. forces launched a series of 3 airstrikes against Al Shabab from the period of Sept. 5-13th.
And on Nov. 9th, U.S. forces conducted another strike killing several Shabaab militants, according to a recent AFRICOM press release. "The operation occurred in the Bay Region of Somalia, about 100 miles west of the capital, Mogadishu," the press release reads.
Officials at the State Department don't support any further withdrawals below the UN-mandated caps.
"We do not support the further drawdown of forces beyond that level at this time, due to ongoing security concerns, a State Department official told Military Times. "The United States supports a conditions-based AMISOM drawdown that is tied to the standup of capable, professional Somali security forces."
Since 2007, the U.S. has committed more than $1 billion to provide training, equipment, logistics support, and advisory support, to Somaila and nearly $400 million to "to build capable Somali forces to operate alongside and eventually replace AMISOM," the official added.