President Trump declares another region an ‘area of active hostilities,’ paving the way for unvetted strikes and civilian deaths
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.”
The move follows a similar expansion of war powers in Yemen. As Common Dreamsreported earlier this month:
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.