President Trump’s New Directive for Somalia

President Donald Trump’s new directive, signed on 30 March, will relax the rules of combat in Somalia for US airstrikes and ground raids. While the directive was meant to increase the pressure on the East African jihadist fundamentalist group, al-Shabaab, this relaxation will increase the risk of civilian casualties and could bolster support for the group.

Under the previous rules of engagement, which was imposed by former President Barack Obama in 2013, combative action could be taken only if there was no risk to civilians, in terms of casualties, and American lives were at stake. Under these new guidelines, known membership of al-Shabaab is enough to justify military action and civilian casualties are now deemed acceptable. Just seven days later, on 6 April, Somalia’s President, Mohamed Abdulahi “Farmajo” Mohamed, announced new appointments at the highest levels of the security services as he installed new men at the head of the army, police, and intelligence services. He then appeared before the local press dressed in military fatigues declaring a “state of war” on al-Shabaab.

With that said, there are two problems with this new directive: the first is theoretical. The frustration of ousting a well-organized, sophisticated, and trans-national insurgency has led the American and Somali authorities to play into the hands of this group. By lowering their humanitarian standards, these authorities are increasing al-Shabaab’s one lifeline: domestic support. Reassigning the priority from preserving civilian life to inflicting casualties on insurgents is morally wrong from any states standpoint, and it is counterintuitive. For instance, this will encourage local populations to become more sympathetic to the group (if they have not done so already), and this is quite logical from a micro-perspective if their alternative is a Federalist government that does not appear to value their lives.

The second problem is determining the identity of al-Shabaab militants. The group, much like Boko Haram in West Africa, are extremely effective at remaining untraceable. This is because their fighters are not a uniformed fighting force, instead, they are guerrilla fighters. To distinguish between a civilian and an insurgent is increasingly difficult, especially when the suspects are sheltered and fed by local populations. To respond by relaxing the protection of civilian lives, therefore, will not make this objective any easier. History has proven, time and again, that no foreign force ends a conflict or ousts a guerrilla force by reducing the rules of engagement. This can be illustrated when looking the Libyan conflict (2011-present), the invasion of Iraq (2003), the Vietnam conflict (1955-1975), or even the American War of Independence (1775-1782).

This paradigm shift from preserving human life to actively trying to end it is a large step backward for peacebuilding in Somalia, and albeit in Northern Kenya, where al-Shabaab also operates. One positive sign from President Mohamed is his call for insurgents to lay down their arms within 60 days for full amnesty and rehabilitation, as this is a more promising policy to take, although it was taken prematurely.

A movement towards an official pardon is laudable, but the relevant stakeholders should first and foremost be recognized and brought to the negotiating table. While it is too early to tell, the fear is that President Mohamed’s call for surrender is a method of legitimizing in Somalia, and the international community, an increase of US-supported military aggression that is sure to follow over the coming year.

This directive should not be underestimated nor should it be overlooked. For instance, this directive will likely act as a prelude to the Trump administration’s approach to future interventions, both in Africa and elsewhere, as demonstrated by a similar approach taken towards Yemen. In a regional context, it spells a likely increase in the ferocity and violence of al-Shabaab’s turmoil as the active shift from moderate peacebuilding to a ‘state of war’ follows. Those that will face the violent consequences will be the innocent men, women, and children who are desperately hoping for an end to the 25-year old conflict that has gripped Somalia.

The best hope, for the time being, is for the United Nations (UN), African Union (AU), and regional civil society groups to stand against this combative bilateral approach taken by President Trump and Mohamed, and to offer a peaceful alternative. With that said, even in the globalized world in which we now live, the US still calls the shots in the peacebuilding agenda.

Thomas Gray