Nov. 28 (UPI) — Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller made a surprise visit to Somalia on Friday in the last of a four-country tour as President Donald Trump contemplates a draw down of counterterrorism troops there.
Miller, who replaced fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Nov. 9, was making his first trip abroad in the position. The U.S. military has about 700 troops in the country.
Miller was visiting neighboring Djibouti as part of his scheduled trip when he took a flight to Somalia without traveling press. Officials said he is believed to be the first defense secretary to visit the country.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Anton Semelroth said Miller took the trip to extend his holiday message of appreciation and support to the U.S. service members in Mogadishu.
Somalia-based U.S. troops mainly train and advise local Somali forces in their fight against al Qaeda’s largest affiliate al-Shabaab and affiliates of the Islamic State. U.S. servicemen carried out an airstrike that killed a top al-Shabaab leader in September.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration sanctioned two leaders of al-Shabaab — Abdullahi Osman Mohamed and Maalim Ayman — barring them from the U.S. financial system and U.S. citizens from conducting business with them as well as freezing any assets or property they might have in the United States.
A Pentagon Inspector General report this week said, though, a reduction in U.S. forces could damage gains the Somalian government has made against al-Shabaab.
“Despite many years of sustained Somali, United States, and international counterterrorism pressure, the terrorist threat in East Africa is not degraded,” the report said. “Al-Shabaab retains freedom of movement in many parts of southern Somalia and has demonstrated an ability and intent to attack outside of the country, including targeting U.S. interests.”