At the behest of Defense Secretary James Mattis, President Donald Trump has loosened the rules covering U.S. airstrikes in Somalia—signaling a potential escalation of America’s 16-year-old covert war against militants from al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-aligned terror group.
But the new, looser rules could backfire. Historically, when the Pentagon tightens up air-raid guidelines, fewer civilians die in accidental or inaccurate strikes. Conversely, relaxing the rules could result in more civilians dying. That could provoke a popular backlash, setting back the U.S. war effort more than any more-user-friendly air-raid procedure advances it.
The Presidential Policy Guidance announced by Trump on March 29 partially rolls back predecessor Barack Obama’s 2013 policy requiring senior officials at multiple federal agencies to sign off on air-raid plans—and only after weighing the risk to civilians.
Obama’s 2013 policy did not apply to what the Pentagon considers “areas of active hostilities” such as Iraq and Afghanistan. In these war zones, local commanders can call in airstrikes on short notice, often in just minutes.
Trump’s March guidance designates most of Somalia an area of active hostilities. “That gives commanders on the ground more flexibility to conduct precision airstrikes,” U.S. Army Maj. Audricia Harris, a spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, told The Daily Beast.
The new guidance—which applies to all of Somalia except the capital Mogadishu and the mostly peaceful, semi-autonomous region of Puntland—could also help the Pentagon provide air support for Somali troops and UN peacekeepers in Somalia, Harris added. U.S. “terminal attack controllers”—specially trained air-raid coordinators—often accompany foreign forces during battle.
Previously, U.S. forces were allowed to provide air support to local troops only for defensive purposes. Trump’s guidance reverses that policy, and could free up American drones and warplanes flying from bases across Africa and from ships at sea to drop more bombs and fire more missiles in closer proximity to friendly forces and civilians.
“This authority is consistent with the Department of Defense’s approach of developing capable Somali security forces and supporting regional partners in their efforts to combat al-Shabaab,” Samantha Reho, an Africa Command spokesperson, told The Daily Beast.
But the Pentagon’s justification of the new guidelines seems to contradict Trump’s own America-first approach to foreign policy. Trump has proposed to cut a billion dollars in U.S. funding for UN peacekeepers, depriving them of training, transportation, and supplies at the same time that he aims to boost their firepower with easier access to American air power.
Worse, more, and faster airstrikes could mean greater risk to civilians. Escalating American air raids targeting Islamic State fighters reportedly killed as many as 200 innocent bystanders in Mosul recently, according to The New York Times. If confirmed, that civilian death toll would be among the highest of any single U.S. military operation since the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq.
The civilian deaths in Mosul darkened the mood among Iraqi troops on the ground, according to one Western reporter who has been embedded with Baghdad’s forces. The Pentagon has long acknowledged that air raids that endanger civilians can be counterproductive.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal perhaps said it best nearly a decade ago. In 2009, U.S. air operations were intensifying in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a commensurate spike in civilian casualties. Everyday Afghans and Pakistanis were angry—and that worried McChrystal. “The greatest risk we can accept is to lose the support of the people here,” McChrystal told 60 Minutes.
“This civilian-casualty issue is much more important than I’d even realized,” McChrystal added. “It is literally how we lose the war, or in many ways, how we win it.”
Under Obama, the military moved to constrain airstrikes—and civilian deaths dropped, according to Jack Serle, who gathers air-raid statistics for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom. “You can see this in Pakistan where the civilian casualties fell both in real terms and as a rate—civilian killed per strike—from a peak in 2009,” Serle told The Daily Beast. “In fact it more than halved into 2010 and has stayed low since.”
But U.S. Africa Command, which oversees most U.S. combat operations in Somalia, argued that looser airstrike rules could actually save lives in the war-ravaged East African country, which has suffered decades of alternating civil war, insurgency, occupation, drought, and mass displacement.
If Somali troops and UN peacekeepers can fight more effectively, swifter victories against al-Shabaab could have the effect of “reducing the risk to civilians,” Reho told The Daily Beast. Harris said local commanders would “still do their own assessments to minimize and prevent civilian casualties” prior to approving an air strike.
To ensure air raids do not needlessly endanger innocent bystanders, Human Rights Watch has urged military commanders to double down on their pre-strike assessments.
“Commanders should, where possible, limit the use of indirect fires (mortars, artillery, and rockets) not using precision-guided munitions, and select weapons and specific ordinance to minimize civilian casualties to the maximum extent possible,” the rights group stated. “Terminal attack controllers should be required to maintain the highest level of direct control over each strike, including both visually acquiring the target and attacking aircraft.”