WASHINGTON (AP) - Vowing he won’t turn Somalia into a “free fire zone,” the commander of U.S. Africa Command said Friday he wants greater authority to conduct airstrikes and use military forces in the African country to allow the U.S. to strike al-Qaida-linked militants more quickly.
Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser said the White House hasn’t yet approved the request. But he told reporters at the Pentagon the greater flexibility would help U.S. and Somali fighters combat al-Shabab extremists.
Last month, The Associated Press reported that senior defense leaders recommended the expanded authorities to the White House. The proposed changes would allow U.S. special operations forces to increase assistance to the Somali National Army, even if that puts U.S. forces closer to the fight.
“It’s very important and very helpful for us to have little more flexibility, a little bit more timeliness, in terms of decision-making process,” Waldhauser said, saying the increased authorities would give the U.S. greater ability to strike al-Shabab and weaken the group.
The military would act appropriately, he said, adding, “We’re not going to turn Somalia into a free fire zone.”
Al-Shabab was blamed for a suicide bombing that blew a hole in a jetliner last year, forcing it to make an emergency landing in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu. Officials have cited the incident in recent days as an example of a laptop-borne bomb after the U.S. barred computers and tablets from the cabins of some incoming flights from overseas. The bomber was the only person killed in the explosion.
Separately, Waldhauser declared the hunt for warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, largely over. He said possibly thousands of Kony’s fighters and most of his top lieutenants are now off the battlefield, leaving the leader “irrelevant” and in survival mode. He said the U.S. would help the region guard against an LRA resurgence.
On Somalia, Waldhauser dismissed suggestions that his request could lead to more civilian casualties in the struggling nation, where a devastating famine has uprooted citizens around the country. The military, he said, has already discussed and “war-gamed” the issue because so many people are moving around the battlefield in search of food and water.
Under current rules, U.S. troops in Somalia are largely restricted to defensive military measures.
U.S. forces can transport and accompany local troops. But they must keep their distance from front lines and can only engage the enemy if they come under attack or if Somali forces are in danger of being defeated. Currently, Waldhauser added, armed drones can launch defensive airstrikes if U.S. or partner troops come under attack.
His proposal would allow the U.S. to conduct offensive airstrikes and allow American forces to move along with Somali troops into the fight when needed, based on what commanders decide.
Military commanders complained that during the Obama administration they had to seek White House permission for many tactical combat moves.
Waldhauser said Friday the proposed changes would streamline decision-making, moving it to the combatant commander level. He and other high-level commanders, he said, are capable of such decisions.
Waldhauser also cited progress in Libya. He said the number of Islamic State fighters there is down to about 100-200 after they were routed from the city of Sirte last year. IS is trying to maintain a presence in Libya but doesn’t appear to be seeking to gain territory, he said.
The U.S. has long operated out of Djibouti and Waldhauser said no new base in Africa is being built. He said the U.S. is using a base in Tunisia to launch drones and will eventually use one in Niger for intelligence gathering. Work isn’t finished at the Niger base, so there haven’t been any flights out of there, he said.
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