President Donald Trump granted the U.S. military more flexibility in conducting operations in Somalia on Wednesday, declaring the country a “war zone” and easing restrictions that protect civilians.
Parts of Somalia have been declared areas of “active hostilities” under a directive Trump signed Wednesday, the New York Times reported. The directive would mean rules that require interagency approval of air strikes no longer apply in those targeted areas, and targets would no longer have to pose a direct threat to American lives. These rules, put in place under President Barack Obama in 2013, also required that strikes would have a very small chance of killing innocent civilians, the Times said. Without these rules, the military now has greater leeway to strike the Al-Shabaab militant group, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, and has attacked a Kenyan military base and the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
Trump’s directive is a response to requests from military commanders in the U.S. Africa Command for more freedom to conduct operations against Islamic militants in the region. Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser told reporters at the Pentagon last week he wanted “a little bit more flexibility” to “allow us to process targets in a more rapid fashion.” Waldhauser said the military would continue to avoid civilian casualties while conducting air strikes.
Civilian causalities from U.S. military airstrikes have soared recently, according to Airwars.org, a non-profit that tracks data on deaths from air strikes in Iraq and Syria. The group says that 1,460 civilians were allegedly killed by coalition airstrikes in March, more than double any month since the group began tracking reports of deaths in August 2014. Earlier this month, about 200 Iraqi civilians were killed by an airstrike while seeking shelter in a basement during the fight to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. On Tuesday, the U.S. military admitted it “probably” had a role in the casualties.
“If we did it – and I’d say there is at least a fair chance we did – it was an unintentional accident of war,” Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said.