WASHINGTON – Amid its escalating campaign of drone strikes in Somalia, the Pentagon has presented the White House with an operational plan that envisions at least two more years of combat against Islamist militants there, according to U.S. officials familiar with internal deliberations.
The proposed plan for Somalia would be the first under new rules quietly signed by President Donald Trump in October for counterterrorism operations outside conventional war zones. The U.S. military has carried out about 30 airstrikes in Somalia this year, twice as many as in 2016. Nearly all have come since June, including a Nov. 21 bombing that killed more than 100 suspected militants at an Al-Shabab training camp.
In a sign that the Defense Department does not envision a quick end to the deepening war in Somalia against Al-Shabab and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the proposed plan is said to include an exemption to a rule in Trump's guidelines requiring annual vetting by staff from other agencies — including diplomats and intelligence officials — of operational plans for certain countries.
Instead, the Pentagon wants to wait 24 months before reviewing how the Somalia plan is working, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Moreover, they said, the Defense Department wants to conduct that review internally, without involvement from other agencies — a request that would further a Trump-era pattern of giving the Pentagon greater latitude and autonomy.
Luke Hartig, a senior director for counterterrorism at the White House National Security Council during the Obama administration, said he supported delegating some greater authority to the Pentagon over such matters but found it "problematic" that the military wanted to be unleashed for so long without broader oversight.
"A ton can happen in 24 months, particularly in the world of counterterrorism and when we're talking about a volatile situation on the ground, like we have in Somalia with government formation issues and famine issues," he said. "That's an eternity."
The Defense Department has submitted the plan to the National Security Council for approval by other agencies. Representatives for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and for the council declined to comment on the details, other than to stress that the military took seriously its need to mitigate or prevent killings of civilian bystanders.
"We are not going to broadcast our targeting policies to the terrorists that threaten us, but we will say in general that our counterterrorism policies continue to reflect our values as a nation," said Marc Raimondi, a National Security Council spokesman. "The United States will continue to take extraordinary care to mitigate civilian casualties while addressing military necessity in defeating our enemy."
Approving the plan would also end the special authority that Trump bestowed on the top State Department official for Somalia to pause the military's offensive operations in that country if he saw problems emerging, the officials said. The Pentagon has objected to that arrangement as an infringement on the chain of command, the officials said, and the new plan would drop it — further eroding State Department influence in the Trump administration.
According to the officials familiar with it, the Pentagon plan would also exempt operations in Somalia from another default rule in Trump's guidelines: that airstrikes be allowed only when officials have determined there is a near certainty that no civilians will be killed. Instead, the officials said, the plan calls for imposing a lower standard: reasonable certainty that no bystanders will die.
However, it is also not clear whether altering that standard would result in any changes on the ground in Somalia. Trump has already approved declaring much of Somalia an "area of active hostilities," a designation for places where war zone targeting rules apply, under an Obama-era system for such operations that Trump has since replaced. That designation exempted targeting decisions in that region from a similar "near-certainty" rule aimed at protecting civilians and instead substituted the looser battlefield standards.
Nevertheless, the head of the U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, decided not to use that added flexibility and instead kept the near-certainty standard in place. His decision stemmed from the challenges of distinguishing fighters from civilians from the air in Somalia, a failed state with complex clan dynamics and where a famine has uprooted people, many of them armed, in search of food and water.
Robyn Mack, a spokeswoman for Waldhauser, declined to say whether he would again decide to keep the near-certainty standard in place if the Pentagon's new plan were approved, writing in an e-mail that it would be "inappropriate for Africom to speculate on future policy decisions."