- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Despite reports the Pentagon will pull back its presence in Africa, the Trump administration’s military campaign against a radical Islamist group in Somalia is accelerating to a record level amid allegations from leading human rights groups that the U.S. is killing civilians and perpetrating war crimes.

At a time when the Pentagon has talked of pulling back its footprint in Africa, the U.S. military has carried out 28 airstrikes so far this year against the al-Shabab terror group in Somalia, records show — more than 60 percent of the total for all of last year.

If the current 2019 pace continues, the U.S. may nearly triple the number of assaults from 2018. There were just 31 strikes in 2017, according to figures compiled by the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s (FDD) Long War Journal project.

The sharply accelerated tempo of the bombing campaign — which began during the waning days of the Obama administration and has steadily ramped up since President Trump came into office — raises new questions after top military officials in recent weeks said they’ll pull back the number of troops stationed across the continent.

The reduction in deployed troops, coupled with the record-setting number of airstrikes, suggests the administration is quietly pursuing a new strategy in Africa and in Somalia specifically, one that centers on using drones and manned aircraft to target terrorist groups more aggressively while avoiding the ground combat and the possibility of new American casualties.

One American soldier was killed and four wounded in a firefight with al-Shabab militants last June, and since then the U.S. policy seems to have focused almost entirely on air power. Specialists also contend that the scope of operations has changed, with the U.S. no longer solely targeting terrorists that pose a direct threat to America or its allies.

But the air campaign has sparked a growing backlash. Prominent human rights groups say the Trump administration is hiding the fact that its bombs have killed civilians across Somalia — a charge the Pentagon denies.

A new report released Wednesday by Amnesty International charges that the U.S. airstrikes have killed at least 14 civilians over the past two years. The study examined just five of the strikes since 2017, suggesting the actual civilian death toll is much, much higher.

“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the U.S. role in Somalia’s war is actually a smokescreen for impunity,” said Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser on arms and military operations. “Our findings directly contradict the U.S. military’s mantra of zero civilian casualties in Somalia. That claim seems all the more fanciful when you consider the USA has tripled its airstrikes across the country since 2016, outstripping their strikes in Libya and Yemen combined.”

Propaganda move?

The Defense Department rejected the Amnesty study and argued that al-Shabab militants are fabricating reports of civilian casualties as a propaganda move.

“We take all allegations of civilian casualties seriously regardless of their origin. During research for its report, Amnesty International submitted 13 allegations in October 2018 and February 2019,” U.S. Africa Command, or AFRICOM, said in a statement late Tuesday evening. “Our assessments found that no AFRICOM airstrike resulted in any civilian casualty or injury. Our assessments are based on post-strike analysis using intelligence methods not available to non-military organizations.”

“It is in the interest of the terrorist group al-Shabaab to untruthfully claim civilian casualties,” the statement added. “It is also in the interest of al-Shabaab to coerce community members to make untrue claims. Al-Shabaab and ISIS-Somalia have a history of placing their forces and facilities in and around civilian locations to conceal and shield their activities.”

Just this week, the U.S. launched an airstrike against al-Shabab fighters in Awdheegle, Somalia, killing three terrorists, AFRICOM said. Immediately afterward, reports emerged that the bombing had claimed civilian lives. The Pentagon said it is investigating those reports.

America’s involvement in Somalia is just one piece of broader conflict against surging radical Islamist movements across the continent. Just this week, for example, Mali’s military said 23 of its soldiers were killed when armed fighters stormed a camp near Bamako. No group has claimed responsibility for the assault, but Mali has blamed the attack on Ba Ag Moussa, a former colonel in the Mali Army who deserted before eventually joining al Qaeda.

Amid widespread violence and unrest, the Pentagon has said it will reduce its troop presence in Africa to focus on threats elsewhere. Marine Corps Gen. and AFRICOM chief Thomas Waldhauser said last month the military will cut about 10 percent of its African forces over the next three years.

About 6,000 American troops and another 1,000 civilian Pentagon employees are currently in Africa. Gen. Waldhauser said the cuts will be carried out in two phases, with the first wave being completed by June 2020 and the second by January 2022. Roughly 300 troops will be pulled from special forces and another 300 from conventional forces, the Military Times reported.

Despite the drawdown, regional analysts say the U.S. mission in Somalia is expanding.

“Under the Obama administration, U.S. officials said that airstrikes in countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Libya were designed to target the leaders of terrorist groups and operatives who directly threaten U.S. national security,” Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at FDD, wrote last week.

“Yet, at the end of the Obama administration and now continuing with the Trump administration, it has been clear that most of the strikes have targeted the group’s ability to wage local insurgencies — even though the Obama administration claimed that local Islamist insurgencies did not pose a threat to the U.S.,” he continued.

Mr. Roggio and other analysts have speculated that the administration could be using a heavy hand now in order to justify an eventual total withdrawal.

“If the Trump administration is seeking to leave Somalia, as has been rumored, it may be seeking cover to withdraw by claiming a military victory over al-Shabab,” Mr. Roggio said.

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