What Donald Trump order on Somalia means

President Donald Trump’s recent order allowing more aggressive US military action in Somalia increases the risk of civilian casualties and consequent recruitment gains for Al-Shabaab, analysts say.

But Mr Trump’s lifting of Obama administration restrictions on US air and ground strikes could also hamper Shabaab’s ability to carry out strikes of its own, these analysts add.

DIRECTIVE

President Trump’s directive last month can be interpreted as an attempt to answer a question his transition team put to State Department officials early in January.

“We’ve been fighting Al-Shabaab for a decade,” the Trump team wrote. “Why haven’t we won?”

In the view of Trump administration officials, President Obama’s cautious approach in directly attacking Al-Shabaab prevented the US Africa Command (Africom) from effectively supporting African Union and Somali government forces.

The move to give US commanders greater latitude in targeting suspected Shabaab elements had been advocated by the Pentagon.

“It’s very important and very helpful for us to have little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of decision-making process,” Africom chief Gen Thomas Waldhauser said at a news conference five days prior to Mr Trump’s shift in US policy.

US RAIDS

His March 29 directive removes a requirement that proposed US strikes on Shabaab be vetted at high levels in Washington.

The new policy also ends the Obama condition that US attacks can be launched only when the targeted entity is believed to pose a specific threat to Americans.

And US raids will no longer be predicated on high probability that civilians will not die as a result.

According to a New York Times account, the Trump order permits attacks when civilian casualties “are deemed necessary and proportionate.”

US officials have acknowledged the heightened danger of civilian deaths — and enhanced recruitment opportunities for Shabaab — as a result of this new authorisation.

“It’s very, very important that we have a very, very high degree of certainty” in limiting or entirely avoiding civilian casualties, Gen Waldhauser said on March 24.

“And obviously the cardinal rule in these types of engagements is to not make more enemies than you already have.”

HUNGER, THIRST

The Africom leader also offered assurance that his strategists have “war-gamed” the scenario of hunger and thirst forcing large numbers of Somali civilians to move through combat zones.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that we don’t have any catastrophes and we don’t take out a group of people moving to find water or food,” Gen Waldhauser said.

But Joel Charny, director of the Washington office of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, warned that “in rural parts of Somalia, distinguishing between civilians and combatants is incredibly difficult.”

HALKAN RIIX OO KA DAAWO MUQAALKA

Mr Charny cautioned that he was not predicting an upsurge of deaths due to the Trump policy but was suggesting that the risks of that occurring are now greater.

Civilian casualties “will probably increase” as a result of loosened US rules of engagement, added Abdirashid Hashi, director of the Mogadishu-based Heritage Institute for Policy Studies.

A rise in the toll on innocent bystanders may also be expected from “Al-Shabaab’s possible and desperate retaliatory measures in the form of car bombs and, as usual in the middle of crowded places with civilians,” he noted.

IMPACT

Mr Hashi also suggested that more frequent US strikes “will impact the insurgent group’s ability to move freely, as they do now, or strike Amisom and the Somali National Army.”

Stig Jarle Hansen, a Somalia expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, agreed that intensified US military support will “potentially give Amisom, and also including Kenyan forces, a new capacity to attack gatherings of Shabaab forces.”

But the Trump order may not translate into an actual escalation of US military operations in Somalia, said Jack Serle, a reporter who has covered Al-Shabaab for the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“They may make the call that they have to maintain the more restrictive rules,” Mr Serle said in regard to US field commanders and officials in Washington.

In addition to the possible advantages accruing to Shabaab, the US likely fears that increased civilian deaths could politically undermine the new Somali government, Mr Serle suggested.

59 DEATHS

Should the US launch more frequent strikes, a short-term outcome may be a lessening of Shabaab’s ability to operate, he added.

“But the key thing, as always,” Mr Serle noted, “is to consolidate those gains.”

Compilations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism indicate that as many as 59 Somali civilians have died as a result of US drone strikes and other attacks since 2001.

More than 500 Shabaab combatants are believed to have been killed in those US air and ground assaults.

Shabaab is estimated to have taken the lives of well over 1,000 civilians in the past decade.

The tempo of US attacks in Somalia had increased during Mr Obama’s last years in office, but this upsurge was not accompanied by a corresponding increase in civilian deaths, Mr Serle noted.

OPERATIONS

The United States has been carrying covert military operations inside Somalia since 2001.

These attacks on land and from the sea and air have been coordinated by the Joint Special Operations Command, a unit in the Pentagon that includes elite troops deployed in Somalia for surveillance, assault and capture operations.

The Central Intelligence Agency also maintains a large base at the Mogadishu airport.

In addition, scores of US trainers and advisers are on the ground in Somalia assisting Amisom and government forces.

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