The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) is maintaining a consistent presence across Africa in order to address security concerns. But terrorist groups continue to pose a threat in many countries with weak governance.
AFRICOM Commander General Thomas D. Waldhauser is in Brussels this week to meet with the European Union (EU) Chiefs of Defense (CHODs) and discuss the current state of affairs in a number of African countries. A number of terrorist groups including the so-called Islamic State (IS), Boko Haram and al-Shabaab maintain a significant presence in many regions, but continue to face military pushback.
DW spoke with General Waldhauser about AFRICOM’s role in Africa and the present security situation.
DW: Overall, is AFRICOM and its partner governments experiencing success in pushing back terrorist groups such as IS, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab?
General Waldhauser: One of the key parts of what we try to do at AFRICOM is to develop the capacity and capability of African partner nations which will allow them to take on these problems themselves – in other words Africans solving African problems. So in places like Somalia we train and advise the military so that they are able to take on these threats themselves.
We know about the pushback efforts against IS but how much of a presence do they have across Africa at the moment?
IS is present across the continent in various degrees. If you take Libya for example there was a significant presence in Sirte six to eight months ago. In fact they owned the city for quite some time. But since we struck IS in the desert again in the middle in January the numbers are now small. They do not own any major territory but they continue to be an issue for us. We also continue to watch other parts of the continent, whether it’s IS in West Africa or in the Lake Chad Basin region. But our role there is to provide training for the Lake Chad Basin region countries to take on that problem themselves. So IS is in various locations across the continent. We continue to watch them while keeping in mind that the core threat is in Iraq and Syria. We also take the opportunity to build relationships with our partner nations to take on those targets.
Let’s look at Somalia. Of course there was a recent tragedy in which a member of the US military was killed for the first time since 1993. Piracy is also on the rise there. So overall what does Somalia look like?
The tragic death of Chief Petty Officer Millican here a couple weeks ago underscores the fact that you know the missions that are going on to train and assist inside Somalia are dangerous. It is the first death in quite some time in Somalia and it is tragic. On the issue of piracy I wouldn’t go so far as to say there’s been a groundswell or a significant uptick in piracy. There’s been a handful of events over the last month that we have to watch closely. The European Union (EU) plays a big role in this because they actually have ships in the region to deal with this problem. But it is too early to say that it’s a significant rise and we have a problem on our hands.
In Uganda they have officially closed the pursuit of Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). I understand that the U.S. didn’t necessarily think it was such a good idea to formally announce they were ending the hunt for him. What’s going on in Uganda at the moment?
Stability. I think it’s no surprise that last month the mission to specifically hunt Joseph Kony came to an end. The LRA movement has been reduced down to 100 or so from perhaps a thousand at its peak. Although we did not get Kony himself, we know he’s on the run. Perhaps at some point he will be caught. But there comes a time when the mission has run its course and we are now transitioning to a steady state. We hope to continue to work with those countries who have been a part of that overall Kony mission. But the time has come for us to move forward. We’re not overly concerned about a [security] void. That was a big part of considerations when we finally closed the mission down. But if we stay on top of it and have a smooth transition plan I think we’ll be ok. We’ll just continue to monitor as we go.
What about Libya? If you look at it from the outside it still seems like such a huge mess.
Libya continues to be a challenge, but I would say that if you look at it from the standpoint of this time last year, there are some positive things which have happened. Obviously IS no longer control Sirte. Their presence in the country is still there, but it’s been reduced to really just survival mode. I think another key thing to point out is the recent meeting between rival leaders General Khalifa Haftar and Fayez Serraj. All of our partners have tried to get these two to come together and lay the basis for an agreement. So we have to take that opportunity and see how we can turn that into a positive. We’ve said all along that there’s no military solution in Libya. There is a political solution. And this is what a political solution looks like.
Interview: Terri Schulz
United States Marine Corps General Thomas D. Waldhauser is the fourth Commander of AFRICOM.
Pentagon Foresees at Least Two More Years of Combat in Somalia
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 American officials familiar with internal deliberations.
The proposed plan for Somalia would be the first under new rules quietly signed by President Trump in October for counterterrorism operations outside conventional war zones. The American 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 over 100 suspected militants at a Shabab training camp.
In a sign that the Defense Department does not envision a quick end to the deepening war in Somalia against the Shabab and the Islamic State, the proposed plan is said to include an exemption to a rule in Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Still, eliminating the State Department authority might make little difference in practice, said Joshua A. Geltzer, who was senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Either way, he said, if the State Department wanted to stop airstrikes in Somalia and the Pentagon wanted to keep going, the dispute would be resolved in a meeting of top leaders convened by Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.
“The question of whether to allow a veto has been a source of tension before,” Mr. Geltzer said of the State Department authority. “But it’s not clear to me how much it’s worth fighting over — so long as those channels for communicating and working out concerns are functioning.”
According to the officials familiar with it, the Pentagon plan would also exempt operations in Somalia from another default rule in Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 United States Africa Command, Gen. Thomas D. 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 General 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 email that it would be “inappropriate for Africom to speculate on future policy decisions.”
However, asked whether General Waldhauser is still imposing the near-certainty standard for strikes in Somalia, she invoked his comments at a Pentagon news conference in March, while the White House was still weighing whether to designate Somalia as an active-hostilities zone, saying what he said then “still stands.” General Waldhauser said then that he did not want to turn Somalia into a “free-fire zone,” adding, “We have to make sure that the levels of certainty that have been there previously, those are not changed.”
Ms. Mack wrote that “it is very important for Africom to have a level of certainty that mitigates or eliminates civilian casualties with our strike operations.”
Mr. Trump’s rules, which have been described by officials familiar with them even though the administration has not made them public, are called the “P.S.P.,” for principles, standards and procedures. They removed several limits that President Barack Obama imposed in 2013 on drone strikes and commando raids in places away from the more conventional war zones that the government labels “areas of active hostilities.”
Among other things, Mr. Trump dropped requirements in Mr. Obama’s rules — called the “P.P.G.,” for presidential policy guidance — for interagency vetting before each offensive strike and determinations that each person targeted pose a specific threat to Americans.
Instead, under Mr. Trump’s guidelines, permissible targets include any member of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic State or any other terrorist group deemed to fall under the 2001 congressional authorization to use military force against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks, even if they are mere foot soldiers who pose no specific threat on their own.
Moreover, instead of interagency vetting before each strike, Mr. Trump’s guidelines call for agencies to approve an operational plan for particular countries, after which the military (or the C.I.A., which also operates armed drones in several countries) may carry out strikes without first getting approval from higher-ranking officials.
How drones could be game-changer in Somalia’s fight against al-Shabab
A former member of U.S. military intelligence is helping fight one of the deadliest terror groups in Africa. He is also a pioneer in the U.S. military’s use of drones and is now using that expertise to help Somalia in its fight against the Al-Qaeda-linked terror group al-Shabab.
The threat of unpredictable violence is ever-present in Somalia. Al-Shabab’s reach is vast and it is one of the most organized and dangerous of Africa’s militant groups, reports CBS News correspondent Debora Patta.
Al-Shabab no longer controls the crumbling city of Mogadishu, but has still been able to wreak havoc with its relentless bombing campaigns. Their weapon of choice has been the vehicle bomb, like the one used with devastating effect on October 14 killing over 500 people in the capital.
CBS News has been told repeatedly that al-Shabab has eyes and ears everywhere. The group’s members blend easily into local communities, and a seemingly quiet road may not look very menacing but can turn nasty in an instant.
Former U.S. military intelligence officer Brett Velicovich wants to change that. He has donated commercial drones to the Somali police force and is training them to use the technology to combat al-Shabab.
“When they go into different areas to clear parts that are under Shabab control, they will actually fly those drones low and in front of them to look out for roadside bombs,” Velicovich said.
Another al-Shabab tactic is to plant one bomb then, as first responders arrive, detonate another, killing everyone who rushed to help.
“The investigators will actually go out and they’ll fly our drones and they’ll make sure that the area is safe for first responders to come into,” Velicovich said.
Somali intelligence has told us that al-Shabaab continues to practice its bomb-making skills over and over until they get it right.
Al-Shabab footage shows how they test one of their bombs on an African peacekeeping convoy. Drone technology could help thwart attacks like these.
“It significantly alters the way they can do counter-terrorism work?” Patta asked.
“Exactly. I mean, imagine walking into a situation where you don’t know if the people in the house or the compound have weapons or if they have explosives, but if you could see from the air what you are about to walk into, that changes the game,” Velicovich said.
Al-Shabab’s bombs are increasingly more complex and more powerful. Simple drone technology could provide a much needed boost for the over-worked, under-resourced Somali counter-terrorism units.
Uganda begins Somalia troop withdrawal
Uganda’s military says it has begun the withdrawal of 281 troops serving in the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.
The move announced on Wednesday is part of a UN plan that will see African Union (AU) soldiers’ numbers reduced by 1,000 by the end of this year.
At the moment there are more than 20,000 soldiers serving in the AU mission (Amisom).
Uganda, which first sent troops to the country in 2007, is the biggest contributor with more than 6,000 soldiers in the force.
Kenya, Burundi, Djibouti and Ethiopia are also expected to reduce their numbers by 31 December.
Pulling out 1,000 soldiers will not be immediately significant but it shows the international backers of Amisom want to see a handover of security to Somali soldiers and police.
African countries have been praised for bringing increased stability to Somalia but there is frustration about corruption among their forces and the failure to secure an adequate victory.
Efforts to develop Somalia’s national army are gaining ground.
The US has already increased its troop numbers in the country to more than 500 and stepped up airstrikes – boosting its co-operation with the Somali military.
But defeating the militant Islamist Al-Shabaab group will not be easy.
A massive bomb attack blamed on the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants killed more than 500 people in the capital, Mogadishu, two months ago – the deadliest in its campaign against various UN-backed governments.