WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has granted the U.S. military more authority to go after al-Qaida linked militants in Somalia, approving a Pentagon request to allow more aggressive airstrikes, officials said Thursday.
Trump's decision, which was made Wednesday but not immediately announced, allows U.S. special operations forces to accompany Somali National Army troops and other African allies as they move closer to the fight, enabling them to call in offensive airstrikes quicker.
Portions of southern Somalia, excluding the capital Mogadishu, will be considered a war zone, officials said. That designation gives U.S. forces on the ground the authority to call in offensive airstrikes, rather than waiting for approval by higher level commanders.
In a statement Thursday, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the additional U.S. support will help "increase pressure on al-Shabab and reduce the risk to our partner forces when they conduct operations."
The Associated Press first reported the Pentagon's request for greater authority in February.
Somalia has been without a truly functioning government for 2½ decades, its vast ungoverned spaces allowing extremist groups to gather and train. Al-Shabab has carried out deadly attacks in Mogadishu and elsewhere. Attacks on military bases in the past two years have slowed joint African Union-Somali offensives against the group.
Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of U.S. Africa Command, told members of Congress last week he wouldn't turn Somalia into a "free fire zone." He stressed the need for "more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of decision-making process" to strike al-Shabab and weaken it.
He dismissed suggestions the change could cause more civilian casualties
The new guidelines pertain to U.S. assistance of Somali and African Union troops, not unilateral American missions in the Horn of Africa country.
About 50 U.S. commandos have been rotating in and out of Somalia to advise and assist local troops. That number could now increase slightly at certain times, said officials, who weren't authorized to discuss the decision publicly and requested anonymity
Somalia is grappling with a devastating famine that has uprooted citizens around the country. The movement of so many people around the battlefield in search of food and water could make strikes more challenging, but the military says it has been preparing appropriately.
There have been no changes to ease rules of engagement or allow for possibility of greater civilian casualties, military officials said. Faster military decisions run that risk, but much of the area now considered a warzone is sparsely populated.
Rules for airstrikes in other areas of Somalia haven't changed, the officials said.
In an AP interview last month, Waldhauser called Somalia his region's "most perplexing challenge." He said the U.S. was seeking a "fresh perspective" amid concern that some fighters have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, illustrating the danger of militants fleeing battlefields in Iraq and Syria for haven in Somalia.