- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The White House has signed off on a Pentagon proposal to allow the head of the U.S. Africa Command to launch an offensive campaign against the al-Shabab militant group in Somalia, clearing the way for more airstrikes and a more active presence of U.S. Special Operations Forces on the ground.
The order clears the way for a stepped-up military campaign in the country where American aircraft and ground forces have for years launched intermittent strikes against the group, claiming they were in “self-defense” of U.S. advisors or their Somali counterparts. Two defense officials confirmed to Foreign Policy that parts of Somalia are now considered what the Pentagon calls an “Area of Active Hostility,” which allows commanders more leeway to strike targets they believe are affiliated with the group.
It remains to be seen how active American forces will be in Somalia, where dozens of U.S. commandos already operate. But the order, first reported Thursday by the New York Times, gels with an increasingly forward-leaning posture in Yemen, where President Donald Trump also recently signed an order allowing for more U.S. military action.
The new authorities will allow U.S. forces to work “in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces” fighting al-Shabab in Somalia, said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis. “Somali and AMISOM forces have already achieved significant success in recapturing territory from al-Shabab, and additional U.S. support will help them increase pressure” on the group.
American forces have been increasingly active in Somalia in recent years. The Obama administration never abandoned its “signature strike” bombing program in either Somalia or Yemen, which allowed for U.S. drones and manned aircraft to target groups of men who merely showed signs and behaviors of belonging to terrorist groups. The largest of those strikes came in March 2016, when U.S. warplanes bombed an al-Shabab training camp north of Mogadishu, killing what the Pentagon estimated were about 150 militants.
Late last year, the Obama team declared Shabab an “associated force” of al Qaeda, putting the group under the same tenuous legal umbrella that allows the U.S. government to wage war in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
U.S. commandos on the ground in Somalia accompany government forces on patrol, and have the authority to shoot back or call in airstrikes if threatened, under rules set down by the Obama administration.
Last week, Africa Command head Gen. Thomas Waldhauser told reporters that he would like to see the authority to conduct strikes in Somalia reside in his headquarters in Germany, and not the White House, as it had under the Obama administration.
“I think the combatant commanders, myself included, are more than capable of making judgments and determinations on some of these targets,” he said. Giving his commanders the ability to launch offensive strikes would allow his “to prosecute targets in a more rapid fashion.”
“We are not,” however, “going to turn Somalia into a free-fire zone,” he said.
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