On June 11th, United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) conducted an airstrike in Southern Somalia targeting al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab is an extremist group operating in Somalia officially since 2007 and has the capability to attack neighbouring countries due to its radical networks in the Horn and East Africa. According to the Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White, the air strikes, which resulted in the deaths of eight suspected al-Shabaab fighters, were a direct consequence of the recent attacks on the Somali and African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) troops. Without a stable central government for decades, AMISOM, with the support of African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN), deployed its troops as a last-ditch attempt to support and spread the authority of the Somali government throughout the country.
These airstrikes come just two and a half months after President Trump approved a policy change that would lessen the restrictions on AFRICOM’s airstrike support to AMISOM. The Obama Administration enacted these restrictions in 2013 to counter the increased use of drone strikes predominantly in Yemen and Pakistan that resulted in civilian casualties. According to the Presidential Policy Guidance, before an airstrike is conducted, the president, cabinet and the national security team need to determine whether the proposed target poses a threat to Americans. Experts claim that this element was added to stop the military from targeting low-level foot soldiers that do not pose an immediate threat. The change would also decrease the likelihood of mounting civilian deaths.
Under the new Trump policy, the military would designate ‘areas of active hostilities’ where airstrikes can be conducted without any interagency review or other necessary criteria for at least 180 days. President Obama utilized a similar tactic in Sirte, Libya, a suspected ISIS stronghold, in 2016 but the declaration was revoked hours before Trump’s inauguration.
According to the Pentagon, the changes “provide additional ‘precision airstrikes’ in support of African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali security forces operations to defeat al-Shabaab.” AFRICOM Commander General Thomas Waldhauser commented that the new policy change would provide, “…more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of the decision-making process.”
It is without a doubt that al-Shabaab poses a threat to the Horn and East Africa. Just while writing this article, a suspected al-Shabaab bombing and armed assault attack at a restaurant in Mogadishu resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people. But lessening the restrictions is not the answer to solving this threat. Experts, such as Joel Charny, the director of Washington office of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, and Abdirashid Hashi, the executive director of Heritage Institute for Policy Studies and the former advisor to the Prime Minister of Somalia warn that the changes will result in an increase in civilian casualties. Charny further states that the possibility of increased civilian casualties occurs due to the difficulty of distinguishing between combatants and civilians. In an effort to maintain its strongholds in Central and South Somalia, al-Shabaab has created alliances with clans and their militias. Within the past decade of AFRICOM’s involvement in Somalia, the use of targeted airstrikes has resulted in civilian casualties. One of the worst incidents was in 2016 where an airstrike intended for al-Shabaab militants resulted in the deaths of 22 civilians and Somali troops.
Clearly then, the United States government should dedicate more of its resources to non-military solutions such as finding the root causes of terrorism and insurgency to counter al-Shabaab, although unlikely in this Trump’s Presidency.