The U.S. war against terror, expanded in the shadows with covert drone strikes under former President Barack Obama, has come screaming into daylight with the Trump administration's rapid widening of the battlefield and stripping of protections for civilians in besieged nations.
On Thursday, the Pentagon announced that President Donald Trump had granted military officials wider authority for conducting airstrikes in Somalia after it was reported that the White House had also relaxed rules meant to prevent civilian causalities in the region.
In a statement provided by the Pentagon, spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis on U.S. Counterterrorism Operations in Somalia said that Trump "has approved a Department of Defense proposal to provide additional precision fires in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces operations to defeat al-Shabaab in Somalia."
Earlier in the day, New York Times reporters Charlie Savage and Eric Schmitt broke the news that Trump "signed a directive on Wednesday declaring parts of Somalia an 'area of active hostilities,' where war-zone targeting rules will apply for at least 180 days," citing "officials familiar with internal deliberations."
This new designation, Savage and Schmitt note,
gives commanders at the United States Africa Command greater latitude to carry out offensive airstrikes and raids by ground troops against militants with the Qaeda-linked Islamist group Shabab. That sets the stage for an intensified pace of combat there, while increasing the risk that American forces could kill civilians.
What's more, it comes at a time of extreme drought and famine in the region, which the reporters say "has increased the frequency of groups of people moving around, often while armed, in search of food and water—increasing the risk of mistaking civilians as Islamist fighters."
unnamed officials told the New York Times, the Trump administration has already declared "parts of three provinces of Yemen to be an 'area of active hostilities,'' which reporter Charlie Savage notes "opened the door" to the late January raid that killed dozens of Yemeni civilians and a U.S service member, as well as the "largest-ever series of American airstrikes targeting Yemen-based Qaeda militants, starting nearly two weeks ago."
Addressing the press last Friday, Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the top officer at Africa Command, acknowledged they were asking for the protections to be revoked, saying: "It allows [us] to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion."
Specifically, declaring the Horn of Africa an "area of active hostilities" allows the U.S. military to carry out strikes against individuals without the burden of proving that they "pose a threat to Americans" and without needing to be near-certain that no civilian bystanders will be killed.
Savage and Schmitt report:
Previously, to carry out an airstrike or ground raid in Somalia, the military was generally required to follow standards that President Barack Obama imposed in 2013 for counterterrorism strikes away from conventional war zones, like those in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Those rules, known as the Presidential Policy Guidance, required high-level, interagency vetting of proposed strikes. They also said that the target must pose a threat to Americans and that there must be near-certainty that no civilian bystanders would die.
Under the new guidelines, Africa Command may treat Somalia under less-restrictive battlefield rules: Without interagency vetting, commanders may strike people thought to be Shabab fighters based only on that status, without any reason to think that the individual target poses a particular and specific threat to Americans.In addition, some civilian bystander deaths would be permitted if deemed necessary and proportionate.
Further, the Washington Post reported earlier this month that the White House was considering scrapping these protective requirements from the President Policy Guidance altogether.
Thus far, the number of civilians killed under President Trump is soaring. A March 17 bombing in Mosul, Iraq killed more than 200 innocent civilians in what was said to be "one of the deadliest bombing raids for civilians since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003."
At that time, journalist Samuel Oakford at Airwars wrote of the U.S.-led air campaign against so-called Islamic State: "The intensity of strikes in 2017—notably around Raqqa and Mosul—has no precedent. To March 15th, a record 245 alleged coalition civilian casualty events have been monitored by Airwars—roughly three events a day. At this pace, the number of alleged coalition incidents this year could surpass 800."
The Times report does note that the U.S. military's involvement in Somalia initially grew under Obama's command.
"Mr. Trump's escalation is less a break with his predecessor than an intensification of a trend that dates to Mr. Obama's last year in power," Savage and Schmitt observe, pointing out that the former president designated the Shabab an "associated force" of Al Qaeda. "That shored up the executive branch's authority to wage war in Somalia by bringing the Shabab under Congress's authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks," they write.
According to data compiled by the New America think tank, there were 9 drone strikes and four ground operations conducted in Somalia in 2016, killing an estimated 25 civilians and 200 people said to be fighting with terrorist organizations.