This is a guest post by Rishav Shah, an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program. Rishav is a graduate of McGill University, where he double majored in International Development Studies and African Studies.
On March 29, U.S. President Donald J. Trump moved to authorize an escalation of U.S. military action in Somalia. The authorization effectively approves the Pentagon’s March 12 request for expanded targeting authority in the East African state. Central to this order is a dramatic departure from former President Barack Obama’s Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) regarding counterterrorism strikes away from conventional war zones (Yemen and Somalia). This represents a far more kinetic approach to al-Shabaab while the U.S. administration cuts aid and development assistance. Liberalizing counterterrorism airstrikes while slashing funding for humanitarian assistance through cuts to USAID, the State Department, and U.N initiatives, is indicative of the current administration opting for a short term foreign policy solution rather than any consideration for longer term peace and stability in Somalia.
Under Obama’s PPG, such operational procedures required high-level interagency vetting and consultation in Washington over proposed strikes with particular emphasis on the safety of civilians. It is important to note that President Trump and his administration were under no obligation to preserve the escalation standards of the former administration. Each president is entitled to formulate their own pathways to military action. Under the new administration’s guidelines, U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) is able to apply less restrictive battlefield rules to Somalia. Broadly this allows for two potential consequences: that commanders may strike individuals solely on the perceived status that these individuals may be al-Shabaab fighters (rather than on the basis of the fact that they pose a specific threat to Americans) and subsequently, that some civilian bystander deaths would be permitted if deemed necessary and proportionate.
Any assessment of this new directive must be framed around a larger conversation of about an insurgency and a newly formed Somali government overcoming a drought which is now an internationally recognized humanitarian crisis. Somalia’s government has declared the drought a national disaster with the UN reporting that a quarter of a million people have been displaced. Widespread drought in the Horn of Africa, resulting in mass food insecurity and a spike in internally displaced peoples (IDPs) is now exacerbating a refugee crisis which regional partners are struggling to contain. In the face of a dire humanitarian crisis, the Trump administration’s proposed “Skinny Budget’ has placed USAID programs at risk of debilitating cuts. These budget cuts are expected to rein in emergency aid operations across the board—including urgent drought and famine relief in Somalia.
The drought and al-Shabaab insurgency have culminated in the creation of 1,106,751 IDPs and upwards of 600,000 refugees regionally. The absence and the inability of the state to meet the needs to a rapidly growing number of Somalis in search of food, water and safety, coupled with a stuttering response from global leaders has left al-Shabaab with a window of opportunity in terms of territorial seizure, and recruitment by way of resource monopolization.
The situation on the ground is that civilians are scouring landscapes for food and water. More often than not, these landscapes are also active war zones occupied by al-Shabaab combatants and the counterinsurgency. This environment makes it very difficult to gauge differences between combatants and civilians in the midst of military action- increasing the risk of mistaking civilians as militants. While intensified military action will likely reduce the mobility and capacity of al-Shabaab, there is concern that any increase in civilian casualties could undermine the federal government. Furthermore, the prospect of retaliatory attacks from the insurgency would also place a vulnerable civilian population at further risk. Essential to any analysis on military American military presence in Somalia is accounting for the prospect of surging numbers of IDPs and refugees. Exacerbating such circumstances will be of particular concern to U.S. allies in the region—notably Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia—all of whom are struggling to uphold human rights standards regarding the refugee crises, and are deeply troubled by the militant threat of al-Shabaab.
Ultimately, implications of this policy could be counter-intuitive when considering the prospective growth, peace, and stability of an already deeply fragile state, and an increasingly strained region.